Carbon Monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that is slightly less dense (or lighter) than room air. It is toxic to humans and animals when encountered in high concentrations. It occurs naturally and is usually associated with products of combustion.
Sources of Carbon Monoxide in a home generally come from one of several places. The furnace, a gas water heater, a fireplace or wood burning stove, a blocked chimney, space heaters and if a car is left running in an attached garage. CO detection is necessary as an unintended consequence of the new energy efficient building standards for homes since the first energy crisis of 1973. Newer homes are better insulated, and the doors and windows seal much tighter to keep out the cold air. Unfortunately, they can also keep airborne toxins inside the home.
CO is called the “Silent Killer.” It bonds with red blood cells and causes a diminished capacity for the blood to perform the Oxygen/Carbon Dioxide exchange that is essential to live. Red blood cells carry CO2 to the lungs where it is exchanged for a fresh Oxygen molecules that are then brought out to the body. The bond between CO and a red blood cell is much greater than the bond between CO2 and the red blood cell. The liver filters your blood and constantly destroys red blood cells (good and bad.) The body replenishes the red blood cells in your body on an almost weekly basis. That is why when someone is overcome with CO, if they live for three days, they will generally make a full recovery. But, long term exposure to CO can still be harmful, as it reduces the amount of Oxygen getting to a person’s brain.
Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
- Shortness of Breath
Signs of High Levels of CO Poisoning
- Mental Confusion
- Loss of Muscle Coordination
- Loss of Consciousness
Ways to Avoid CO Poisoning
- Install Carbon Monoxide Detectors in the home
- Make sure heating appliances are serviced regularly
- NEVER operate a gas engine (generator, etc. inside the home)
- NEVER burn charcoal inside the home as a source of heat
- NEVER leave a car engine running while inside an attached garage
- Never use a stove, oven or gas dryer to attempt to heat the home
At what level is CO Dangerous to my Health?
As stated, CO detectors check the level of CO over time. Most people will not experience any signs or symptoms of CO poisoning if the level is under 70 ppm (parts per million.) At sustained levels of 150 to 200 ppm, disorientation, unconsciousness and even death are possible. Most CO detectors are designed to sound an alarm if the CO level in the air approaches 70 ppm for a period of 3-4 hours. Normal levels of CO in the home are around 1-5 ppm.
Differentiating between a CO detector and a Smoke Detector
Generally speaking, if a smoke detector sounds, there will be visible smoke in the air. Also, smoke detectors sound off in a temporal three pattern. Beep Beep Beep (pause) Beep Beep Beep etc.
CO detectors will sound only during the presence of dangerous CO levels in the air. Unlike smoke detectors, they are not prone to false alarms due to cooking odors or steam coming from a shower. They sound off in a temporal four pattern. Beep Beep Beep Beep, (pause) Beep Beep Beep Beep, etc. That being said, if a CO detector goes into alarm, DO NOT IGNORE IT.
It is always a good idea to have at least one CO Detector in your home, that is connected to your home security system. The current Fire and Safety Codes require one CO Detector per living level. Remember, if a CO Detector sounds, you may already be affected by the CO level in the air. For that reason, if CO is detected in a home and the signal is reported to the Central Monitoring Station, they are now required to dispatch the local Fire Department. If you only have “plug-in” type CO Detectors, if one alarms, you may not react quickly because of the effects of the CO on your brain. But if a second detector sounds, then you absolutely need to get into some fresh air. NEVER try to determine the source of the CO. Let the professionals make that determination. If you call the local Fire Department to report a CO alarm, they will generally tell you to get to fresh air, but DO NOT ventilate the house. It makes it much more difficult for them to detect the source of the CO with their “Sniffer” devices. If a CO Detector sounds and for some reason (inclement weather or other emergency) the Fire Dept. or Utility Company cannot respond, then opening windows and doors to ventilate the house will be OK. But you should stay out of the house until the problem is resolved. This scenario is exactly the reason why it is such a good idea to have more than one CO Detector in the house.
Statistically, many more people die in fires every year than from CO Poisoning. Thousands of people die every year in the USA as a result of house fires. CO Poisoning deaths are in the hundreds. But CO Poisoning is much more easily prevented. House fires once started, grow exponentially, and can overtake a person before they can escape from the home. In most CO Poisoning cases, the levels of CO increase gradually over the course of days or weeks until they reach a dangerous level.
In February, 2014 a restaurant manager died and 20 people were overcome (and hospitalized) from CO Poisoning in a mall in Long Island, NY. An ambulance crew was dispatched for a woman who had fallen and suffered a head injury. After treating the woman, the ambulance crew reported feeling “light headed.” It was determined a short time later that a faulty heating appliance in the basement of the mall may have been the cause of the problem. In that case, the heating unit was spewing extremely high levels of CO into the air. This is atypical of the way people are overcome by CO, but it does happen sometimes. A home with “forced hot air” heat would be more prone a problem like this, as a crack in the heat exchanger in the furnace could let unburned flue gases into the air that is being heated and then it is pumped to every room in the house. We at Blue Knight use Carbon Monoxide Detectors made by several different manufacturers. The one pictured above is made by System Sensor and is a hardwired detector. We also use wireless CO Detectors made by Honeywell and DSC, depending on the application.