A few days ago I was talking to a repair technician, he mentioned that he had unintentionally saved someone’s life when he was going to do a routine inspection on their furnace for carbon monoxide leaks. When he arrived, he said that a husband and wife were there, they had stayed home from work that day because they felt sick and thought it was the flu. When he checked the furnace he said there was a major leak and the carbon monoxide levels were off the charts!
Had the couple stayed in their house for even a few more hours they would have been dead!
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of disturbing and sad stories similar to this one. A good way to protect yourself from this kind of tragedy is to be informed.
Carbon monoxide or CO is a deadly, colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. It is emitted from the incomplete burning of various fuels including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane and natural gas.
The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission has some good information on carbon monoxide poisoning. According to them, approximately 500 people die each year in the U.S. from CO poisoning and about 170 people die from non-automotive carbon monoxide poisoning, thousands more are treated in emergency rooms across the country.
Since we live in North Dakota, where eight or nine months out of the year are spent heating our homes and cars, I thought it would be good to know a few things about carbon monoxide poisoning and its effects.
What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?
Symptom severity depends on the level of exposure to CO. Around 70 ppm results in low to moderate symptoms, anything above 100 ppm is dangerous. The initial symptoms of low to moderate CO poisoning are similar to the flu (but without the fever). They include:
- Shortness of breath
Symptoms of high level CO poisoning include:
- Mental confusion
- Loss of muscular coordination
- Loss of consciousness
- Ultimately death
If you think you have CO poisoning or if your CO alarm sounds:
- Get outside immediately and breath fresh air.
- Do not try to find the leak, you could loose consciousness and die!
- Call the fire department from a neighbors house to report the leak.
- Go to the doctor for a proper diagnosis, tell them that you suspect CO poisoning. Prompt medical attention is important if you are experiencing any symptoms of CO poisoning.
- Have a qualified technician check your appliances for proper operation before using them again.
What can I do to prevent CO poisoning?
- Make sure appliances are installed and operating according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Most appliances should be installed by qualified professionals.
- Have the heating system professionally inspected and serviced each year to ensure proper operation. The inspector should also check chimneys and flues for blockages, corrosion, partial and complete disconnections, and loose connections.
- Never service fuel-burning appliances without proper knowledge, skill and tools. Refer to the service manual for any questions or minor adjustments.
- Never operate a portable generator or any other gas engine-powered tool in or near an enclosed space such as a garage, house, or other building. Even with open doors and windows, these spaces can trap CO and allow it to quickly build to lethal levels.
- Install a CO alarm that meets the requirements of the current safety standards. A CO alarm can provide some added protection, but it is no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that can produce CO. Install a CO alarm in the hallway near every separate sleeping area of the home. Make sure the alarm cannot be covered up by furniture or draperies.
- Never use portable fuel-burning camping equipment inside a home, garage, vehicle or tent unless it is specifically designed for use in an enclosed space and provides instructions for safe use in an enclosed area.
- Never burn charcoal inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.
- Never leave a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
- Never use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens, or clothes dryers to heat your home.
- Never operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in any room where people are sleeping.
- Do not cover the bottom of natural gas or propane ovens with aluminum foil. Doing so blocks the combustion air flow through the appliance and can produce CO.
- During home renovations, ensure that appliance vents and chimneys are not blocked by tarps or debris. Make sure appliances are in proper working order when renovations are complete.