Carbon monoxide (CO), also called carbonous oxide, is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that is slightly lighter than air. Carbon monoxide is produced from the partial oxidation of carbon-containing compounds; it forms when there is not enough oxygen to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), such as when operating a stove or an internal combustion engine in an enclosed space. In the presence of oxygen, carbon monoxide burns with a blue flame, producing carbon dioxide. Coal gas, which was widely used before the 1960s for domestic lighting, cooking, and heating, had carbon monoxide as a significant constituent. Some processes in modern technology, such as iron smelting, still produce carbon monoxide as a byproduct. When inhaled, carbon monoxide rapidly displaces oxygen in the victim’s blood, resulting in serious illness, even death. Since carbon monoxide is completely invisible, odorless and tasteless, many people have no idea that they are being poisoned until it is too late. Fore this reason, carbon monoxide is often called “The Silent Killer”. Airtight design in today’s modern energy efficient homes can contribute to the problem by confining carbon monoxide contaminated air within the home. Appliances should always be checked to ensure that they are in good working order and properly ventilated by a qualified professional if necessary.
Common carbon monoxide sources in the home include:
When used properly these appliances are not dangerous, but if not properly vented, or not burning correctly, they can be deadly.
What are the symptoms/dangers?
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning often imitate those of common illnesses such as the flu. Some studies have indicated an estimated 23.6% of people who have flu or stress symptoms could actually be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Victims of low level carbon monoxide poisoning often experience the following symptoms:
At higher levels carbon monoxide poisoning can cause:
Severe carbon monoxide poisoning can cause:
What can I do to protect my family?
Medical studies have shown a high percentage of the population is particularly vulnerable to carbon monoxide, especially low levels over a long period of time. This high risk group includes fetuses, children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung disorders. When inhaled, carbon monoxide combines with hemoglobin in red blood cells to form substances that work to decrease oxygen levels and eventually asphyxiate the victim.
The awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide combined with the use of carbon monoxide detectors in the home will dramatically reduce the incidents of tragic deaths and frightening near misses that result from carbon monoxide leaks.
It is recommended at least one carbon monoxide detector be installed near the sleeping area of your home. Additional detectors are advised for the common living areas of the home or installed near (but not directly over) other emission sources such as heating appliances. However, detectors should not be located near a bathroom where humidity from a shower may affect its operation. Also, fingernail polish and hair spray adversely affect carbon monoxide sensors.
What do I do if my detector goes off?
If your carbon monoxide detector does activate the first thing you should do is call 911. After calling 911 you should calmly evacuate family members and pets to outside the home or a neighbor’s house. DO NOT open windows and doors to air out the home, this will prevent firefighters from detecting the source. When the fire department arrives they will inspect the home with monitoring devices and then let fresh air in the house if it is necessary.
Never hesitate to call for help if your carbon monoxide detector is activated, helping you in these situations is what firefighters spend so much time training for and we are always willing to help.