Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Estimates vary, but more than 1,000 people die each year in their homes from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning according to a local extension specialist. Research suggests many more may be getting sick from smaller, non-fatal CO exposures. “The saddest part of that is that every one of these deaths is preventable,” says Donna Chilton, housing and environmental design specialist, University of Missouri Extension.
Carbon monoxide is produced when a fuel, like natural gas, propane, fuel oil, wood, charcoal or gasoline, is burned. It can leak from faulty or poorly maintained fuel-burning appliances or can enter the house because of a blocked chimney or flue that hasn't been cleaned. Well-maintained equipment and appliances, safe operation and the installation of carbon monoxide detectors will help prevent accidents and save lives. According to Chilton, carbon monoxide detectors should meet Underwriters Laboratories (UL) standards, have a long-term warranty and be designed so they can be easily self-tested and reset to ensure proper functioning. The best place for a carbon monoxide alarm is near sleeping areas.
“Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless poisonous gas that interferes with the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Even low-level exposure to carbon monoxide can cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness, nausea or loss of muscle control,” says Chilton.
Because health effects of low and moderate levels mimic the flu or food poisoning, many people don't know they are experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning. “If you experience symptoms you think could be from CO poisoning, get fresh air immediately, turn off combustion appliances and leave the house. Go to an emergency room and tell the doctor you suspect CO poisoning, which can be diagnosed with a blood test,” says Chilton.
According to Chilton, all home fuel-burning equipment (like furnaces, chimneys and flues) should be inspected annually to ensure proper ventilation and efficient operation. “It is also important that all fuel-burning heaters used to warm the house be vented to the outside. If you must use an unvented heater, leave a window (in the same room with the heater) open at least one inch. Unvented heaters should be turned off at night,” says Chilton.
Install exhaust fans over gas cooking stoves and ranges to vent the fumes outdoors to reduce pollutants during cooking. “Don't use ovens or gas ranges to heat your home, even during an emergency,” Chilton says. She also recommends not closing all foundation vents under the house when heating equipment — like floor furnaces and central-heating systems — are located under the house.
For more information about carbon monoxide and other combustion gases, contact your local University of Missouri Extension center for guide sheet GH5001, “Indoor Air Quality.”