By Beth Weinhouse
Carbon Monoxide
Protecting your family from something you can't see, hear or smell can feel daunting, but this doesn't make the threat any less real. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is toxic to breathe, but you can take action now to protect yourself and your family. Follow the carbon monoxide safety tips below to prevent CO levels from building up in your home, detect and eliminate the gas if it is present, and recognize the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning so you can seek treatment when necessary.

Where does carbon monoxide come from?
Carbon monoxide gas (CO) is produced when certain fuels are burned, such as natural gas, oil, kerosene, wood coal, propane, or charcoal. In homes the sources include gasoline-powered appliances, like space heaters, water heaters, and stoves, leaking or blocked chimneys and furnaces, wood stoves, fireplaces, and car exhaust from attached garages. These appliances are safe if they are correctly installed and working properly, but leaking or badly vented appliances can permit CO to build up in enclosed spaces.

How can you prevent carbon monoxide from building up in your home?
The first and most important step is to make sure that all your fuel-burning appliances are well-maintained and in good working order and to ensure that fumes from your car's engine don't enter your house from an attached garage.

The EPA advises that you:
  • Keep gas appliances properly adjusted.
  • Install and use an exhaust fan vented to outdoors over gas stoves.
  • Open flues when fireplaces are in use.
  • Choose properly sized wood stoves that are certified to meet EPA emission standards. Make certain that doors on all wood stoves fit tightly.
  • Have a trained professional inspect, clean, and tune-up your central heating system (furnaces, flues, and chimneys) annually. Repair any leaks promptly.
How will you know if it's there?
Just as you should have smoke detectors in your home, you should also install CO detectors. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends that a CO alarm be installed in the hallway outside bedrooms or other sleeping areas. The CPSC advises CO alarms should not be installed in kitchens or right above fuel-burning appliances, in areas where they can be covered by furniture or drapes, or in locations near heating vents.

Some CO alarms plug right into electrical sockets and others can be hard-wired into the walls—in both cases, ensure the alarms have a battery backup and meet the standards of the Underwriters Laboratories. Follow manufacturer's instructions for installation and periodic testing.

Visit our Decoding Detectors post to learn more about choosing the right CO detector for your home.

What should you do if you think you've been exposed?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. Higher levels of CO inhalation can cause confusion, loss of consciousness, and even death.

If your alarm goes off, first check to see if anyone in your family is experiencing symptoms that might indicate CO poisoning. If anyone is feeling symptoms, leave the house immediately and seek medical attention. If no one is feeling any effects, the American Lung Association recommends that you immediately open doors and windows to ventilate your home with fresh air and turn off all potential sources of CO including an oil or gas furnace, gas water heater, gas range and oven, gas dryer, gas or kerosene space heaters, and any vehicle or small engine. Have a qualified technician inspect your appliances and chimneys as soon as possible to make sure everything is operating correctly and nothing is blocking fumes from being vented outside.

The CDC reports that more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning each year, and more than 20,000 visit the emergency room. Taking a few simple steps to prevent carbon monoxide from building up in your home and to effectively detect it if it does can help keep you and your family safe.


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