What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide forms when organic compounds such as gas, oil, kerosene, and wood are burned. It is a colorless and odorless gas, and since you cannot see it, taste it, or smell it, carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer. The dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning are real, and learning how to protect your family is a primary concern.
Why it Causes Death…
The human body needs two substances to generate energy and survive – oxygen and glucose. Ingestion of carbon monoxide (commonly known as CO), suppresses the lungs ability to absorb crucial oxygen through the following process. CO is flammable and highly toxic. Its toxicity is due to the binding of the carbon monoxide to iron in the hemoglobin, consequently blocking the intake and transport of oxygen in the blood. Cutting off the oxygen supply to the lungs, heart, and brain is the reason death can occur within minutes. The health effects depend on the level of CO exposure and the length of exposure, as well as the individual’s general overall state of health.
Identifying the Sources
The deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning are linked with differing types of accidentally obstructed exhaust systems, or purposely blocked systems, as in an unfortunate suicide. The CO gas can be produced by common household appliances when there is improper ventilation, and CO builds up. Possible sources are:
– Gas water heaters
– Gas ovens, ranges, or cook tops
– Kerosene space heaters
– Propane heaters or stoves
– Gas and diesel powered generators
– Cigarette smoke
– Boats with engines
Risks for exposure are the situations we need to monitor. Some examples are:
– Kids riding in the back of enclosed pickup trucks
– Industrial workers at mills and foundries
– Firefighting crews
– Improper boat ventilation
– Working indoors with combustion engines
The Center for Disease Control estimates the number of deaths from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning near 500 people annually, with 1,500 people per year visiting the hospital exhibiting symptoms. At the highest level of risk are infants, the elderly, and people with heart or respiratory problems. Most people do not experience any symptoms at exposure to CO levels of 1 to 70 parts per million (ppm). Above 70 ppm effects are much more noticeable. At 150 to 200 ppm disorientation, unconsciousness, and death are probable.
At repetitive low levels of carbon monoxide exposure, one might experience shortness of breath, mild nausea, mild headaches, and other flu-like symptoms. Because these conditions mimic other illnesses, you might not recognize they are related to CO inhalation, and the debilitating effects from the toxicity build up with long term exposure. At moderate exposure levels severe headaches, dizziness, and confusion are experienced, and lead to death if the CO poisoning continues. Here is a list of other relevant symptoms:
– Impaired judgement
– Memory problems
– Drowsiness or visual changes
– Chest or abdominal pain
If you suspect your physical indications are a result of CO poisoning, move away from the source into fresh air. Then seek immediate medical care. Definite signs of carbon monoxide toxicity are not specific, so a blood test is required. The hospital then uses high doses of oxygen administered with a mask, and checks CO levels in blood until they drop to the normal range. In severe cases a hyper baric chamber is used to provide the patient with higher doses of oxygen quickly.
The prognosis can be difficult to predict , and death will result in cases of heavy toxicity. Even with treatment long-term brain damage, problems focusing, memory loss, and psychiatric problems can remain with the individual in some degree. Luckily, many patients do respond favorably to treatment, and recover completely.
How to Protect Your Family
Prevention is the key element in protecting your loved ones from the very real dangers of carbon monoxide – the fact that high levels of exposure can end or change your life instantly. Have all your home appliances that burn fuel inspected at the beginning of heating season, or at least once a year, by a trained and certified professional. Only use appliances in your home that vent to the outside, and never ignore any uncomfortable symptoms you may be experiencing. Ask these relevant questions to help pinpoint the source of these. Do they occur when you are in the house, disappear when you are away, then reappear when you come home? Is anyone else in the house suffering any symptoms, and if so, did they begin at the same time as yours? If there are fuel burning appliances in the home, when was your last inspection?
Here are a few more preventative measures broken down into detail: Keep chimneys and flues clear of any blockages, and clean them every year. As we mentioned earlier, do an inspection of the furnace, wood burning stoves, and gas ranges annually. Never burn charcoal indoors, as it is a major source of carbon monoxide fumes. Never operate gasoline powered engines in confined spaces, such as a car or recreational vehice, even with the garage door open. And check to make sure all outside exhaust openings are clear for ranges, clothes dryers, water heaters, and furnaces. This is especially important in the winter season if you live in an area with snowfall, as the snow can build up outside and block these vents.
Using Carbon Monoxide Detectors
The most important tool in your preventative arsenal should be the CO detector. Installing a carbon monoxide detection alarm on every level of the house is your first line of defense. 93% of homes in America have smoke detectors installed, yet only 15% of homes have CO level monitors. The technology involved in the production of CO detectors is still evolving, and laboratory testing has found that these are not as reliable as current smoke alarms. Some of those tested did not go off even at high levels of CO present, while other alarms went off at too low of a reading. Because carbon monoxide is invisible and odorless, it is hard in a real life situation to confirm that it is a false alarm.
As in the case of many pieces of modern technology we purchase, it does not help if you own it, if you don’t install it. Installers need to be aware of the two current Underwriters Laboratory (UL) standards. UL2034 pertains to single and multiple carbon monoxide alarms used for protection in ordinary residential dwellings. The recommendation is for consumers to purchase and install CO detectors with labels showing they meet requirements of the new UL standard 2034.
Detectors should be installed one per floor, and within hearing distance of sleeping areas. Some choose to install one in each sleeping area, which is another option. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also recommended placing the CO detectors near, but at least five feet away from combustion appliances. These may be placed on the floor or ceiling as air and carbon monoxide have almost the same density, and both locations are equally effective. One final word on installation — don’t forget to put in the batteries if needed.
New Building Codes
Carbon monoxide injuries and deaths have decreased steadily over the past couple of decades. The decline in numbers has been credited to improved motor vehicle emissions, and the general evolution of combustion devices. Almost half of non-fire CO deaths involve idling vehicles, and further studies indicate 2/3 of all CO exposures occur in the home.
Across the US new housing and building codes are being enforced. Due to our tighter housing construction, houses are almost airtight, and the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning has become a priority. Some state and municipal governments are adopting these codes, making a CO detector mandatory in residential and commercial construction. This is a positive trend, and has spread to Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia among others. Even a new “home-on-wheels”, an RV, must have CO monitors installed at the time of sale.
Carbon Dioxide Detectors
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that audible alarms became standard. Earlier sensors were a chemically saturated white pad that faded to brown or black in the presence of CO. Carbon monoxide detectors first came onto the market with a life span of only 2 years. Now newer models are designed to last up to 7 years, and even emit a signal indicating the time for replacement. With the new construction mandates, the market for CO monitors is exploding, and there are quite a few different choices.
The newest carbon monoxide detectors can be both battery powered, or AC powered with a battery backup. Battery technology has evolved tremendously over the last few years also, and one CO monitor advertises a battery lifetime of over 6 years. There is the stand alone variety, or the network model where numerous detectors are connected through a system, and monitored from a central station. Some versions offer digital readouts of the concentration level or ppms, and a wireless technology that consists of CO detectors linked wirelessly to strobe lights, or vibrating pillow pads. These types of alarms help to wake up the hard of hearing, heavy sleepers, or invalids who need assistance to evacuate. Every passing moment counts in the case of carbon monoxide exposure.
Shopping for Safety
Several manufacturers are producing excellent CO measuring devices and alarms. Names like DuPont, System Sensor, First Alert, Kidde, and KWJ Engineering top the list, and can be found at Lowe’s, Sears, Home Depot, local hardware stores, or with online vendors. Starting at around $30. and for under $60., you can purchase a battery model or an AC plug-in with battery backup. An interconnecting version is available for under $80., and the wireless technology for under $150. On the higher end of the price spectrum, for around $200., a 36 or 24 month single gas carbon monoxide detector can be bought. This is a disposable clip-on unit, with water resistance, and no maintenance – neither battery charging, or battery and sensor replacement is needed. This type of CO monitor has record keeping capabilities and automatic event logging to record any exposures, and is used by workers in industrial jobs.
After checking reviews from a couple of consumer watchdogs, one CO detector stood out from the pack as a good buy for the average home user. The Kidde company features several models for around $40. The customer reviews applauded their accuracy, speed, and durability. Battery powered is one good way to lean because people often use a fuel powered space heater after the power goes out, and this can generate carbon monoxide. For those who forget to check batteries, this same concept is accessible with the model that plugs in, but comes with back-up batteries in case of power loss. Add the voice alert option, and the price averages $60.
Quick Action Counts
To reiterate the steps to follow should you suddenly hear the CO detectors shrieking alarm: Make sure it is the CO detector, and not the smoke alarm going off. Check with other household members to see if they are having any symptoms. If yes, then go to the emergency room immediately and tell the attendant you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. If no one has any suspicious symptoms, ventilate the house and turn off all potential sources. Have a technician inspect the appliances before using them again. Never ignore the alarms, and remember CO detectors are not a substitute for proper maintenance. Paying close attention to a few but important details, you will be able to protect your family and not fall prey to carbon monoxide poisoning.