Carbon monoxide is often referred to as a “silent killer.” Odorless, tasteless, and colorless, if carbon monoxide creeps into your home or workspace, you may not realize it’s there until it’s too late.  On average, 430 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, with males at three times more risk than females. Surviving carbon monoxide requires a three-prong approach: awareness, prevention, and detection.

Awareness: Carbon Monoxide in Your Home

Sources of Carbon Monoxide in the Home. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a byproduct of the incomplete burning of carbon energy sources such as kerosene, propane, oil, coal, or wood.  In the home, the most common source of carbon monoxide comes from gas appliances and furnaces, alternative heating sources like kerosene heaters and wood stoves, and internal combustion engines like automobiles and lawn mowers. All of these items produce carbon monoxide, but when they are used properly, the harmful gas is vented away from the living area and rendered harmless.

How Does Carbon Monoxide Affect the Body? Because it’s an odorless and tasteless gas, you and your family can become unknowing victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.  When inhaled, carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the body’s bloodstream, depriving the heart, lungs, and vital organs of the oxygen necessary to sustain life. When exposed to large amounts of CO, an individual can be overcome and lose consciousness quickly.

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • headache
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • confusion
  • shortness of breath
  • collapse
  • muscle weakness

While everyone is at risk of death when exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, children, the elderly, and those with compromised health are especially at so. While it is possible to recover from exposure to high levels of CO, it can also cause permanent brain and/or organ damage, making prevention the best and most effective strategy.

Prevention: Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Your Home

Gas furnaces and appliances are extremely popular in the United States, with more than 62 million homes heated with natural gas. Other potential sources of carbon monoxide are also popular: 60 percent of new homes are being built with fireplaces. That being the case, here are some of the the best ways to avoid CO exposure and poisoning.

Step 1: Identify Possible Sources of Carbon Monoxide in Your Home

Understanding that CO is produced by burning carbon-based fuels, look around your home and identify possible sources of carbon monoxide:

  • natural gas heating and cooling systems
  • gas appliances: stoves, ovens, refrigerators, dryers, water heaters, etc.
  • emergency generators
  • alternative heating sources, including wood stoves and gas and wood-burning fireplaces
  • vehicles, tractors, and other equipment (lawnmowers, generators, etc.) with gas-burning engines

Step 2: Take the Proper Preventative Measures

Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning does not require eliminating all fuel-burning equipment and appliances from your home. Take the following precautions instead:

  • Have a professional install any new or replacement gas appliances. They can ensure the appliances are installed and vented properly.
  • Never idle a car in your garage. Even if the door is open, it’s possible for harmful fumes to make their way into your home.
  • Have all gas appliances inspected and serviced regularly.
  • Do not use portable kerosene or propane heaters indoors, even in cases of power outage.
  • Have any wood burning stoves or fireplaces in your home checked yearly for proper ventilation and operation.
  • Do not operate propane grills indoors or in an enclosed space like a garage. Move the grill into the open air to allow proper ventilation.
  • Store gasoline and propane in approved containers in well-ventilated areas such as an outdoor shed.

Fuel-burning appliances and equipment become unsafe when they are not properly ventilated or become faulty. Annual maintenance combined with proper ventilation will keep you and your family safe.

Detection: What Should You Do if You Suspect High Levels of Carbon Monoxide?

The most effective way to detect a buildup of deadly CO gas in your home is a carbon monoxide detector. These detectors come with a variety of features including smart home automation and dual smoke detectors, and many models are battery operated. Every home should have a CO detector, either as a stand-alone safety device, or combined with a traditional smoke detector. Make sure to test the detector and replace batteries on a regular basis.

What should you do if the alarm sounds? If the CO detector’s alarm sounds, night or day, take the following emergency steps:

  • Trust the alarm.  Do not waste precious moments questioning whether or not there is an emergency or trying to locate the source of gas.
  • Get everyone out of the home and into fresh air immediately. Remember that CO poisoning can happen quickly, causing victims to lose consciousness.
  • Call 911 and advise them of the alarm.
  • If your home is connected to another through shared walls or ventilation, attempt to warn others without putting yourself in harm’s way.
  • Do not re-enter the home under any circumstances unless it’s declared safe for re-entry by emergency personnel.

Keep in mind that the severity of carbon monoxide poisoning is directly related to the levels of CO present in the home.  Slowly developing situations will bring on mild, then worsening symptoms over time, and are sometimes mistaken for other conditions, such as the flu. If you suspect CO poisoning is to blame, the safest course of action is exit the home immediately and call a professional for further assistance.

Carbon monoxide is a silent killer, and even when it spares its victims it can have lingering effects on health and well-being. For the sake of your loved ones and your own security, take time to prevent its release in your home, and give some thought to how you’ll detect a leak when it occurs.