Carbon Monoxide Facts

What is carbon monoxide (CO) and how is it produced?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a deadly, colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. It is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas. Products and equipment powered by internal combustion engine-powered equipment such as portable generators, cars, lawn mowers, and power washers also produce CO. For most people carbon monoxide comes from their gas furnace.

How many people are unintentionally poisoned by CO?

On average, about 175 people in the United States die every year from CO produced by non-automotive consumer equipment. These products include malfunctioning and not maintained fuel-burning appliances such as gas furnaces, ranges, water heaters and room heaters; engine-powered equipment such as portable generators; fireplaces. In 2005 alone, CPSC staff is aware of at least 94 gas generator-related CO poisoning deaths. Forty-seven of these deaths were known to have occurred during power outages due to severe weather, including Hurricane Katrina. Still others die from CO produced by non-consumer products, such as cars left running in attached garages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that several thousand people end up in hospital emergency rooms every year to be treated for CO poisoning.

What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

Because CO is odorless, colorless, and otherwise undetectable to the human senses, most people do not know that they are being exposed until they have become overcome. The initial symptoms of low to moderate CO poisoning are similar to the flu with no fever. Most people brush this off as just not feeling well. They include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

High level CO poisoning results in much more severe symptoms, including:

  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of muscular coordination
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Ultimately death
  • Not in control

Symptom severity is related to both the CO level and how long a person has been exposed. For residential CO problems that develop slowly occupants and or medical personnel can dismiss mild to moderate CO poisoning symptoms for the flu, which sometimes results in tragic deaths. For rapidly advancing, high level CO exposures, people can rapidly become mentally confused, and can lose muscle and breathing control without having first experienced more milder symptoms, they will likely die or suffer permanent medical issues if not rescued.

How can I prevent CO poisoning from happening?

Make sure gas appliances are installed and operated according to the manufacturer’s specifications and local building codes. All gas appliances should be installed by qualified professionals. Have the heating system professionally inspected and serviced annually to ensure proper operation. The technician should also check chimneys and flues for blockages and proper draft, corrosion, condensation, white spots on outside chimney, partial and complete disconnections, and loose connections.

Never service gas appliances without proper knowledge, skill and tools. Always refer to the owners manual when performing minor adjustments or servicing gas equipment.

Never operate a portable gas generator or any other gasoline engine-powered tool either in or near an enclosed space such as a garage, house, or other building. Keep at least 25 feet away from the house.Even with open doors and windows, these spaces can trap CO and allow it to quickly build to lethal levels.

Install a CO alarm that meets the requirements of the current UL 2034 or CSA 6.19 safety standards. A CO alarm can provide some added protection, but it is no safe guard for proper maintenance and operation of appliances that can produce CO. Install a CO alarm in the hallway near every separate sleeping area of the home. Make sure the alarm cannot be covered up by furniture or window treatments.

  • Never have a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
  • Never use gas appliances such as gas ranges, ovens, or clothes dryers to heat your home.
  • Never operate unvented gas heaters or fireplaces in any room where people are sleeping.
  • Do not cover the bottom of natural gas or propane ovens with aluminum foil. Doing so blocks the much needed combustion air flow through the gas appliance and can produce CO.

What CO level is dangerous to my health?

The health effects of CO depend on the CO concentration and length of exposure, as well as each person’s health condition. Young children and the elderly are at a faster risk rate. CO concentration is measured in parts per million (ppm). Most people will not experience any symptoms from prolonged exposure to CO levels of approximately 1 to 70 ppm but some heart patients might experience an increase in chest pain and breathing problems. As CO levels increase and remain above 70 ppm, symptoms become more prevalent and can include headache, fatigue, confusion and nausea. At constant CO concentrations above 150 to 200 ppm, disorientation, unconsciousness, and serious medical conditions or death are possible.

What should I do if I am experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning and do not have a CO alarm, or my CO alarm is not going off?

If you think you are experiencing any of the symptoms of CO poisoning, leave your home and get outside to fresh air immediately. Leave the home and call 911 to report your symptoms from a neighbor’s home. You could lose consciousness fast and die if you stay in the home. It is also important to contact a medical personnel 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. If the doctor confirms CO poisoning, make sure a qualified technician checks the gas appliances for proper operation before resuming use.

Are CO alarms reliable?

It is best to have a CO alarm with a digital read out and plugs directly in the electrical outlet. CO alarms always have been and are designed to alarm before potentially life-threatening levels of CO are reached. The safety standards for CO alarms have been constantly improving and CO alarms that are currently sold are not as susceptible to nuisance alarms as earlier models. Don’t take your gas furnace for granted just because you have a CO alarm. Have your equipment check on a regular basis.

How should a consumer test a CO alarm to make sure it is working?

Consumers should follow the manufacturer’s specifications. Using a test button tests whether the buzzer is working, not main sensor. Most CO alarms should be replaced every 3 years. Alarms have a recommended replacement age, which can be obtained from the product literature or from the manufacturer.

How should I install a CO Alarm?

CO alarms should be installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. It is best to install the CO alarm where you sleep. CPSC recommends that one CO alarm be installed in the hallway outside the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area of the home. CO alarms may be installed into a plug-in receptacle or high on the wall. Hard wired or plug-in CO alarms should have battery backup. Avoid locations that are near heating vents or that can be covered by furniture or draperies. CPSC does not recommend installing CO alarms in kitchens or above fuel-burning appliances.

What should you do when the CO alarm sounds?

Leave your home immediately. Call 911!

If the alarm signal sounds do not try to find the source of the CO:

  • Immediately leave your home and move outside to fresh air.
  • Call your fire department or 911.
  • After calling 911, if you can, check that all persons are accounted for. DO NOT go back inside the premises until the emergency services have given you permission. You could lose consciousness and die if you go in the home.
  • If the source of the CO is determined to be a malfunctioning gas appliance, DO NOT operate that appliance until it has been properly serviced by trained technician.

What is the role of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in preventing CO poisoning?

CPSC staff worked closely with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to help develop the safety standard (UL 2034) for CO alarms. CPSC helps promote carbon monoxide safety by raising awareness of CO hazards and the need for correct use and regular maintenance of fuel-burning appliances. CPSC staff also works with stakeholders to develop voluntary and mandatory standards for fuel-burning appliances and conducts independent research into CO alarm performance under likely home-use conditions.

Do some cities require that CO alarms be installed?

Whether required or not you should have a CO alarm. Many states and local jurisdictions now require CO alarms be installed in homes. Check with your local building department to find out about the requirements in your location.

Should CO alarms be used in motor homes and other recreational vehicles?

CO alarms are available for boats and recreational vehicles and should be used. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association requires CO alarms in motor homes and in towable recreational vehicles that have a generator or are prepped for a generator.

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