Every year, almost 200 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning, with thousands more visiting the emergency room. Many victims die in their sleep without ever knowing that a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas is slowly killing them. Carbon monoxide is produced when fuel is not completely burned. If you have an appliance that uses natural gas such as a stove or clothes dryer, or you have a fireplace or a space heater, you are at risk for carbon monoxide exposure. Any home heating system that burns fuel like natural gas or propane is also a potential risk.
Carbon monoxide bonds with your red blood cells and prevents them from picking up oxygen to carry to your body. It basically suffocates you from the inside out. It can come in smaller quantities from a burned out pilot light or a burner on a gas stove that's slightly open. More serious problems like a malfunctioning furnace or water heater or a blocked chimney can cause much higher levels to build up in your home quickly. Leaving your car to warm up in an attached garage or using gas powered equipment without ventilation can also cause quick buildup of carbon monoxide, as can charcoal grilling. At high enough levels, carbon monoxide can kill in as few as two hours.
So how do you know if you have carbon monoxide poisoning? The symptoms vary based on level of exposure. The first thing you will feel is a headache at about 15 percent exposure. Without getting some fresh air, the headache will get worse and nausea will set in at 25 percent exposure. The symptoms will intensify as the gas is inhaled, with mental confusion and finally unconsciousness setting in at about 45 percent exposure. Exposure over 50 percent is generally fatal. The gradual appearance of symptoms is why many victims die in their sleep without every realizing that the gas is killing them.
What You Need To Know About Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Fortunately, you can buy a carbon monoxide detector for a little as $20. There are two basic types. Battery operated detectors are passive and don't go off until a threshold level of carbon monoxide is detected. Household current units are more expensive, but most of them will take repeated samples of the air for a more accurate picture of the current levels in your home. The type of detector you should buy depends on the amount of potential carbon monoxide generators in your home.
So where do you put them once you buy them? The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends a detector on each floor of your residence, with one on the sleeping floor and one near the major gas burning appliances at a minimum. This will allow you to actually hear the alarm if it goes off and you are already dealing with the early symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure. Check the manufacturers installation instructions for placement, as some detectors have different sensitivity levels and features than others.
And if it goes off? Stay calm and check to see if anyone is feeling symptoms like headache, dizziness or nausea. If so, call 911 and get everyone outside for some fresh air. If everyone feels OK, check to make sure that the gas powered appliance or heat source is turned off and make arrangements to get repaired. Remember that you can't see, smell or taste the gas. You have to trust the detector that it's there.