Heater Safety: Carbon Monoxide in the Home

Carbon monoxide, also known as CO, is a danger that lurks silently in every home. It can come from appliances such as a gas burning stove, vehicles, and oil burning lamps. Because it is something that cannot be seen, heard or smelled, people often are not aware of it when it becomes a threat. This can cause a number of problems that may even lead to death. It is important for people to understand what carbon monoxide is and what it can do to the body. In addition, due to its silent but deadly nature, it is crucial that everyone in a home knows how to detect the signs of elevated carbon monoxide and knows what must be done in the event of exposure.

CO2 puff of Smoke

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that can be found in the home, garage or in work places.It comes from the incomplete burning of materials that contain carbon or natural gas. Common sources of CO include cars, burning charcoal or wood, heating equipment, and gas stoves.Its danger lies in the fact that it is free of color, smell and taste, which makes it impossible to detect with one's senses. It is dangerous to both humans and animals and can cause serious illness and death to people who are not aware that they are exposed to it.

  • OSHA Fact Sheet - Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: A PDF fact sheet from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that reviews carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. The sheet explains what carbon monoxide is in addition to other facts such as how it can harm a person.
  • Exposing an Invisible Killer: The Dangers of Carbon Monoxide: A page on the U.S. Fire Administration FEMA website. This page discusses carbon monoxide and defines what carbon monoxide is. It also explains actions to take if a carbon monoxide alarm goes off and how people can protect themselves.

How Does Carbon Monoxide Affect the Body?

Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide results in what is called carbon monoxide poisoning. If left untreated carbon monoxide poisoning will affect the body, making it difficult for oxygen to reach the person's brain and heart. This happens because carbon monoxide replaces the oxygen that is in the person's hemoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells. When this happens it is carbon monoxide, not oxygen, which reaches vital organs.

  • Signs and Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide and Health Effects: The Vermont Department of Health website reviews how carbon monoxide affects a person's health. It also describes the signs and symptoms associated with carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: The Mayo Clinic explains carbon monoxide poisoning and the health risks. It also includes a link to causes, which also explains how carbon monoxide affects the body.

What are the Signs of Elevated Carbon Monoxide Levels and How is it Detected?

Because carbon monoxide typically goes undetected, it is important to have a method of detection in place. This can be done by purchasing a CO detector or a CO alarm. This will sound when carbon monoxide levels in the home, workplace or any environment, are elevated. In the event that a detector fails to go off or there is not an alarm present, it is equally important to recognize what the signs of elevated CO levels are as well. Common signs that CO levels are elevated include difficulty breathing, a dull headache, confusion, blurring of one's eyesight, vomiting or nausea. In some cases, people may lose consciousness if exposed too long. If a person is sleeping, they will not be aware of these symptoms, which increases the danger of carbon monoxide.

  • Protect Yourself and Your Family From Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: The Environmental Protection Agency website that explains how to detect the symptoms associated with high levels of carbon monoxide and carbon monoxide poisoning. It also discusses how to detect it by getting a CO detector and what to look for when purchasing one.
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: A page that discussed CO poisoning. It includes symptoms of CO poisoning as a sign of elevated CO levels and it also discusses CO alarms and detectors.

Safe Carbon Monoxide Use

When dealing with items that release carbon monoxide, it is important to use them properly and maintain them in a manner that will lessen their likelihood of becoming a problem. This means ensuring that gas appliances and fireplaces are vented properly. Furnaces should be checked yearly to ensure that there are no leaks and fireplaces should also be cleaned yearly. When using kerosene lamps, always use the correct fuel and keep the room well ventilated by cracking a window or opening doors to other rooms. If in the garage, do not allow the car to run as carbon monoxide will build up quickly in the closed off space.

  • Use Generators Safely to Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: A page on the Maine Emergency Management Agency website that discusses how to use carbon monoxide-generating heaters and generators safely during power outages. The page also includes safety tips for other items such as appliances.
  • Carbon Monoxide Safety: Includes steps on how to safely use appliances and items that produce CO in order to reduce exposure.

What to do in the Event of Elevated Carbon Monoxide Levels

seeking medical help

Whenever a person feels that he or she has been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, it is important to get outdoors as quickly as possible. This will expose them to fresh air and will remove them from the carbon monoxide. If there is more than one person in the house, there should be a head count to ensure that everyone is safely outdoors. Once this is done they should call for emergency assistance and get medical attention. It is also important to not return to the house until it has been determined that it is safe to do so. Typically the emergency personnel responding to the call will inform the person when it is safe.

  • Making Your Home Safe from Fire and Carbon Monoxide: An e-publication that discusses ways that people can make their homes safe from both fire and carbon monoxide. In the carbon monoxide section of the page, it explains what to do if there are high levels of CO in the home.
  • Carbon Monoxide - Say No to CO!: A PDF brochure that discusses carbon monoxide. It includes an explanation of what to do if elevated CO levels cause the CO detector to go off.