Carbon Monoxide Detectors

According to the Center for Disease Control and the American Medical Association, between 1999 and 2004 there were over 2500 accidental deaths from carbon monoxide (CO) in the U.S. Carbon monoxide detectors could easily have prevented many of these fatalities. CO detectors look and function much like smoke alarms, but use a different type of sensor that detects excessive levels of carbon monoxide, rather than smoke.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that can be highly toxic. Individuals exposed to excessive levels of carbon monoxide can literally be poisoned without even being aware of the danger. Faulty gas appliances, poorly ventilated kitchen/utility areas and living spaces next to or over garages are all potential contributing factors to carbon monoxide exposure.

Carbon monoxide is produced when fossil fuels containing carbon are burned without sufficient oxygen to allow for complete and safe combustion. Instead of carbon dioxide, a normal byproduct of combustion, the result is carbon monoxide.

When carbon monoxide enters the body through the lungs, it inhibits the ability of the blood stream to carry oxygen throughout the body. Exposure to low concentrations of CO can cause headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest pains in persons with heart disease. Higher concentrations can result in severe headaches, dizziness, disorientation, and various flu-like symptoms that seem to disappear when away from the home or source of exposure. Extreme levels of exposure can result in coma, convulsions, cardio-respiratory failure and death.

Some common sources of potential CO exposure include unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, leaking chimneys and down-drafts from wood stoves and fireplaces, faulty furnaces, poorly ventilated gas appliances (ranges, clothes dryers, water heaters, etc.), portable generators used indoors, car exhaust from attached garages and tobacco smoke.

Following these simple precautions can help minimize the risk of CO exposure:

  • Have furnaces inspected, cleaned and tuned up annually (be sure to have flues and chimney areas checked for potential leaks).
  • Make sure all gas appliances are properly vented.
  • Make sure gas flames and pilot lights are blue. Yellow flames indicate that the gas is not burning properly and the equipment may need to be adjusted by a qualified professional.
  • Be sure fireplace dampers are open before lighting a fire and leave the damper open until the ashes cool (smoldering ashes can actually produce more CO than a fully-burning fire).
  • Choose properly designed and sized wood stoves that are certified as meeting EPA's emissions standards.
  • Donít start or idle automobiles in the garage with the garage door closed.
  • Ventilate areas where people smoke to avoid CO buildup and minimize the risk of exposure to children.
  • Install CO detectors in key areas throughout the home - rooms near a garage, rooms with space heaters, hallways, living and sleeping areas (CO detectors should not be installed in garages, kitchens or furnace areas, as the initial combustion of starting a car, or turning on a stove or furnace, may trigger the alarm needlessly).

Most illnesses and deaths attributed to carbon monoxide can be prevented. Following these simple guidelines can help keep you and your family from becoming unnecessary victims.

For more information on CO detectors, check with your local fire department or the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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