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Carbon Monoxide Danger in the Home

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is the number one cause of poisoning deaths in America. CO is an invisible, odorless, poisonous gas produced by the incomplete combustion of any fuel -- such as gasoline, kerosene, propane, natural gas, oil, and even wood fires. In concentrated form, CO can be fatal when inhaled -- killing in minutes or hours, depending on the level of CO in the air. In smaller doses, CO produces a wide range of flu-like symptoms ranging from red eyes, dizziness, and headaches to nausea, fatigue, and upset stomach.

One tell-tale sign of mild CO poisoning is flu symptoms without a fever.

Typical sources of CO in homes are malfunctioning gas furnaces, gas stoves, water heaters, clothes dryers, and even improperly vented fireplaces. Other major dangers include using a generator in or too near one's home, using a barbeque unit indoors to cook or heat during a power outage, and letting a car run in a garage or car port where exhaust fumes can collect and enter the home.

Many of today's energy-efficient, "tight" homes minimize outside air exchange and cross ventilation, giving CO no chance to exit once it enters the home.

Just as with smoke detectors, there are CO detectors for the home. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends that every home with fuel-burning appliances of any kind be equipped with a least one CO detector.

If you have only one unit, place it in the hall outside the bedroom area of your home. Invisible, odorless, poisonous CO in concentrated form is even less likely to awaken a sleeper than thick toxic smoke.

While heat and smoke rise toward the ceiling, CO wafts through a room like perfume -- only you can't smell or see it. CO detectors should be placed from 14 inches off the floor to face height on the wall and never where there is a draft, such as near a window, doorway, or stairwell.

As with smoke detectors, CO detectors can be battery operated, hard-wired-mounted directly onto an electrical wall outlet, or plugged into an electrical cord, allowing units to sit on a shelf or tabletop. Units that plug into a direct power source should also have an independent battery backup in the event of a power failure.

Your CO detector should have a digital display with memory that indicates and records a problem, even when it's too small to trigger the alarm. A normal low level of CO in a home is zero. Nada, zilch, zip. However, even a small reading -- such as 25, 30, or 35 parts per million-indicates a problem that could escalate.

The care and maintenance of CO detectors is basically the same as for smoke detectors with regard to cleaning and frequent testing. However, unlike using kitchen matches to test a smoke alarm, a carbon monoxide detector can't be tested using an outside source. Therefore, it is imperative that the test buttons provided on the equipment be tested at least once each month.

Additionally, have your heating system, vents, chimney, and flue inspected (and cleaned if necessary) by a qualified technician. Always vent fuel-burning appliances.

Other maintenance procedures should include checking and correcting any signs that indicate potential CO problems, including:

  • A noticeably decreasing hot water supply
  • A furnace that runs constantly but doesn't heat your house
  • Soot collecting on, under, and around any appliance
  • An unfamiliar burning odor
  • A loose or missing furnace panel or vent pipe
  • Damaged brick, chimney discoloration, or a loose fitting chimney pipe