Carbon Monoxide (CO) is known as the “silent killer,” and according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, “every year 600 Americans die due to accidental acute Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Over 20,000 are made ill and treated” for carbon monoxide poisoning. Those are shockingly high numbers for something that’s usually preventable.
Unfortunately, sometimes it even happens in our own backyard. For instance, three people died in Plaistow, NH because a vent to a propane-fired heater was disconnected and fumes were leaking into the house; the batteries from the CO detector had also been removed, giving these homeowners no warning whatsoever. A Nashua man died earlier this year from CO exposure as well, and this winter, there will likely be more local residents sickened or worse.
This is a problem that homeowners ought to take seriously, so what is CO poisoning, and how can you protect yourself and your loved ones?
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission states that, “Carbon monoxide (CO) is a deadly, colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. It is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas. Products and equipment powered by internal combustion engines such as portable generators, cars, lawn mowers, and power washers also produce CO.”
Sources of Carbon Monoxide
It’s important to know that the burning of any fuel has the potential to produce carbon monoxide. In fact, many homeowners blame their vented gas or oil furnaces, boilers, or water heaters first. But while these appliances are sometimes to blame, “they appear to represent less than 25%” of carbon monoxide-related illness.
Your attached garage may actually be the worst offender. Who doesn’t start their car before backing out of their garage?
The problem is that carbon monoxide gets trapped inside once you shut the door, and then leaks into your home through the many leaks inherent in houses. “Some of these pathways into the home are cracks around the entry door and framework, gaps and cracks in drywall, wiring and plumbing penetrations and leaky ductwork, just to name a few.”
Gas Ovens and Ranges are next on the list because these appliances are “seldom vented to the outside. Therefore, the potential for elevated carbon monoxide levels in the house air is very likely if the appliance is producing” carbon monoxide.
It’s generally a bad idea to have any sort of unvented fuel-burning appliance in an unvented space, so unvented heaters and fireplaces come third. “Kerosene or gas space heaters, or malfunctioning wood stoves or fireplaces” can set off alarms (hopefully you have several), but carbon monoxide “can also be produced by power equipment such as lawn mowers, chain saws, forklifts, generators, etc. Pool heaters, BBQ grills, trash incinerators, tobacco smoking and propane powered refrigerators in hunting/fishing camps can also be sources. Even electric ovens have been known to set off” carbon monoxide “alarms in their self-cleaning mode.
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, “the initial symptoms of low to moderate CO poisoning are similar to the flu (but without the fever). They include:
- Shortness of breath
High level CO poisoning results in progressively more severe symptoms, including:
- Mental confusion
- Loss of muscular coordination
- Loss of consciousness
- Ultimately death
Symptom severity is related to both the CO level and the duration of exposure. For slowly developing residential CO problems, occupants and/or physicians can mistake mild to moderate CO poisoning symptoms for the flu, which sometimes results in tragic deaths. For rapidly developing, high level CO exposures (e.g., associated with use of generators in residential spaces), victims can rapidly become mentally confused, and can lose muscle control without having first experienced milder symptoms; they will likely die if not rescued.”
That’s pretty scary stuff, but before you run out to your local hardware store to buy a carbon monoxide detector, you should be aware that they’re not all detectors are created equally. You need to understand the difference between standard retail monitors and Low Level CO Monitors.
Low Level CO Monitors
Basically, the carbon monoxide alarms you buy from your local hardware store aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be, and are known as “catastrophe alarms” that only detect carbon monoxide levels once they’ve reached a certain point. That means that it’s possible to have prolonged, low level exposure to CO and never know it until it’s too late. Some homeowners have been known to get sick, but have trouble pinpointing the exact cause of their illnesses. In fact, new evidence shows “that exposure to low levels of CO over time can compound many pre-existing health problems such as heart and lung disease, anemia, diabetes, asthma, depression and learning and concentration problems. It can also be responsible for premature death.” According to the Comfort Institute, “if the level of carbon monoxide found inside your home exceeds the ambient level found outside your home by more than 9 ppm (parts per million), you definitely have a problem that needs to be corrected at once.”
The solution? More advanced, professional-grade carbon monoxide detectors sold by HVAC companies are attractive, easy to operate, and reliable. These units feature highly sensitive, CO-specific electrochemical sensors to detect and record even minor levels of CO circulating in your indoor air, updating readings every 15 seconds, and identifying and storing CO levels as low as 11 and as high as 999 parts per million (ppm).
Consider scheduling a Carbon Monoxide test for a Low Level CO alarm, and home CO testing, before wasting money on a store-bought version that won’t live up to the hype.
Tune in next week while we debunk the three myths about store-bought CO detectors!