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Carbon Monoxide

Photo Courtesy CDCCarbon monoxide, or CO, is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death. Carbon monoxide is found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by cars and trucks, small gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, burning charcoal and wood, gas ranges, gas dryers, gas water heaters, and heating systems. Carbon monoxide from these sources can build up in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces. People and animals in these spaces can be poisoned by breathing the CO.

Health Risks of Carbon Monoxide

Red blood cells pick up CO quicker than they pick up oxygen. If there is a lot of CO in the air, your body may replace oxygen in your blood with CO. This blocks oxygen from getting into your body, which can damage tissues in your body and can kill you. Knowing where CO is found and how to avoid it can protect you from serious injury or death.

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. High levels of carbon monoxide ingestion can cause loss of consciousness and death. Unless suspected, carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms mimic other illnesses. People who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from carbon monoxide poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms.

All people and animals are at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. Certain groups -- unborn babies, infants, and people with chronic heart disease, anemia, or respiratory problems -- are more susceptible to its effects. Each year, more than 500 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, and more than 2,000 commit suicide by intentionally poisoning themselves.

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Carbon Monoxide Levels

The health effects of CO depend on the level of CO and length of exposure, as well as each individual's health condition. The concentration of CO is measured in parts per million (ppm). Health effects from exposure to CO levels of approximately 1 to 70 ppm are uncertain, but most people will not experience any symptoms. Some heart patients might experience an increase in chest pain. As CO levels increase and remain above 70 ppm, symptoms may become more noticeable (headache, fatigue, nausea). As CO levels increase above 150 to 200 ppm, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death are possible.

If you think you are experiencing any of the symptoms of CO poisoning, get fresh air immediately!

Open windows and doors for more ventilation, turn off any combustion appliances, and leave the house. Call your fire department and report your symptoms. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing. It is also important to contact a doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis. Tell your doctor that you suspect CO poisoning is causing your problems. Prompt medical attention is important if you are experiencing any symptoms of CO poisoning when you are operating fuel-burning appliances. Before turning your fuel-burning appliances back on, make sure a qualified serviceperson checks them for malfunction.

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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Tips

Knowledge is the key to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning. In most cases of unintentional poisonings, victims did not realize that carbon monoxide was being produced or building up in the air they were breathing. Carbon monoxide can be easily and cheaply detected in the home; several relatively inexpensive carbon monoxide alarms are available. Install a CO detector/alarm that meets the requirements of the current UL standard 2034 or the requirements of the IAS 6-96 standard on every floor of your home, especially near every separate sleeping area.  Make sure the detector cannot be covered up by furniture or draperies. Keep in mind that a carbon monoxide detector/alarm can provide added protection, but is no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that can produce carbon monoxide. 

Make sure that:

  • all fuel-burning appliances are properly installed, maintained, and operated 
  • furnaces, water heaters, and gas dryers are inspected annually by a qualified service technician
  • fireplace chimneys and flues are checked and cleaned every year
  • unvented fuel-burning space heaters are used only while someone is awake to monitor them and doors or windows in the room are open to provide fresh air
  • automobile exhaust systems are routinely inspected for defects
  • automobile tailpipes are routinely inspected for blockage by snow during the winter months

In addition, remember:

  • Never use a gas range or oven to heat a home.
  • Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern, or portable camping stove inside a home, tent, or camper.
  • Never run a generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage, or other enclosed structure, even if the doors or windows are open, unless the equipment is professionally installed and vented.
  • Never run a motor vehicle, generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine outside of an open window or door where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.
  • Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space, such as a closed garage. Open the garage door before starting your vehicle.

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