Colorless. Odorless. Tasteless. Undetectable to the human senses. Accountable for at least 430 deaths and approximately 50,000 hospitalizations in the United States every year. We’re speaking about carbon monoxide – also known as the “silent killer” – and what you can do to keep your family safer from it.
What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide’s chemical formula is CO. This refers to the single atom of carbon and single atom of oxygen which make up the CO molecule. CO is actually quite useful in certain industrial applications, and has even been proposed as a potential fuel source for space exploration.
CO is most frequently created when compounds which contain carbon are burned in an environment where there is too little oxygen or heat to create carbon dioxide (CO2). Engines, stoves, lanterns, gas ranges, furnaces, grills and even cigarettes produce CO.
Exposure to low amounts of CO can be safe for several hours. But when CO exists in high enough concentrations, it can become life-threatening in under 60 seconds.
Why Is CO So Deadly?
The Earth’s atmosphere is 21 percent oxygen. The form of oxygen we breathe is dioxygen (O2), a molecule made of two oxygen atoms. We receive permanent brain damage if we don’t get any of it for four minutes. We can suffocate to death if we don’t breathe O2 for about twice as long.
Unfortunately, CO binds to red blood cells even more effectively than the O2 they are meant to carry. When you inhale CO, the molecule displaces the O2 that your brain, heart and other vital organs need to function. This is why CO poisoning occurs far more commonly indoors, where poor ventilation allows the imperceptible gas to accumulate in higher concentrations.
In essence, CO suffocates you, and it can do so without even making you aware that you are suffocating.
What Are the Symptoms of CO Poisoning?
Common symptoms of CO poisoning include weakness, headache, dizziness, confusion, chest pain, upset stomach and vomiting. Severe CO poisoning can cause the victim to fall unconscious. But if the victim is already unconscious or sleeping while they are exposed to high concentrations of CO, they can die before feeling a single one of the symptoms.
Infants, children, pregnant women and the elderly are all at greater risk of CO poisoning, but make no mistake: So long as you are near the combustion of fuel – be it wood, gas, natural gas, kerosene or coal – then you are at risk of CO poisoning, too.
What Causes CO Poisoning?
Unvented gas space heaters are the most common cause of CO poisoning. Older models which lack oxygen sensors and automatic shut-off functions are more likely to cause CO poisoning, which is why multiple jurisdictions have banned unvented space heaters altogether.
After unvented space heaters, the most common causes of CO poisoning are obstructed chimneys, idling vehicles, house fires, wood burning fireplaces, barbecue grills, and malfunctioning furnaces, water heaters, cooking appliances and clothes dryers.
How Can You Prevent CO Poisoning?
While it is virtually impossible to live without burning fuel, ensuring that your home’s appliances are properly vented and functioning correctly is paramount to reducing your and your family’s risk of CO poisoning. That is why it is advisable to have your fuel-burning appliances inspected by an HVAC technician every year.
You can also reduce your chance of CO poisoning by:
- Never burning charcoal inside your home
- Never using a generator inside your home
- Never using a gas range to heat your home
- Never using a camp fuel stove inside your home
- Never using flameless chemical heaters inside your home
- Never going longer than one year without having your chimney checked and cleaned
- Never purchasing gas equipment that has not been approved for sale by a national testing agency
Are CO Detectors a Good Idea?
Yes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission advises the installation of a CO detector on every floor of a residence, or at bare minimum on every sleeping floor with an additional device near the furnace and water heater.
Even if your home already has hardwired CO detectors, it is a good idea to have one or more battery-powered backup CO detectors in your home. Place a CO detector where its alarm is most likely to wake you while you’re sleeping in bed. Make certain to check its batteries every six months (it is helpful to make a habit of checking your CO detector batteries at daylight savings time).
CO detectors expire after five years. This is because the part of the device which actually senses CO gradually loses its sensitivity. Even if your CO detector appears to be in good condition after five years, it is very likely no longer effective at fulfilling its life-saving purpose.
If you live in the greater Richmond, Minnesota area, then we welcome you to contact Gilk Plumbing Heating & A/C for all your CO detector needs. We sell high-quality CO detectors, and we will gladly install them at your home. We additionally provide the professional water heater and furnace inspection, maintenance and repair services you need to reduce your risk of CO poisoning. We are proud to help save lives!