Carbon Monoxide

What you need to know about the leading cause of poisoning deaths in America.


What is carbon monoxide and who is at risk?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless deadly gas. Because you can’t see, taste, or smell it, carbon monoxide can kill you before you know it’s there. Everyone is at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. Experts believe, however, that individuals with greater oxygen requirements such as unborn babies, infants, children, senior citizens and people with coronary or respiratory problems are at greater risk.

Why is carbon monoxide so dangerous?

The greater danger of carbon monoxide is its attraction to hemoglobin in the bloodstream. CO is breathed in through the lungs and bonds with hemoglobin in the blood, displacing the oxygen cells need to function. When CO is present in the air, it rapidly accumulates in the blood, forming a toxic compound known as carboxhemoglobin (COHb). Carboxhemoglobin causes symptoms similar to the flu, such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizzy spells, confusion and irritability. As levels of COHb increase, vomiting, loss of consciousness and eventually brain damage or death can result.

 Where does carbon monoxide come from?

Carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion, present whenever fuel is burned. It is produced by common home appliances, such as gas or oil furnaces, refrigerators or clothes dryers, water heaters, fireplaces, charcoal grills, gas ranges, wood burning stoves and space heaters. Fumes from automobiles also contain carbon monoxide and can enter a home through walls or doorways if a car is left running in an attached garage. All of these sources can contribute to a CO problem in the home. If a home is vented properly and is free from appliance malfunctions, air pressure fluctuations or airway blockages, carbon monoxide will most likely be safely vented to the outside. But in today’s “energy-efficient” homes this is frequently not the case. Insulation meant to keep warm air in during winter months and cool air in during summer months can trap CO-polluted air in a home year-round. Furnace heat exchangers can crack, vents can become blocked, inadequate air supply for combustion appliances can cause conditions known as back drafting or reverse stacking, which force contaminated air back into the home.

How can I protect myself & my family from carbon monoxide poisoning?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends installing at least one carbon monoxide detector per household, near the sleeping area. A second detector near the home’s heat source provides extra protection. Choose and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listed detector that sounds an audible alarm. First Alert, the leading name in home safety, manufactures a UL listed, battery operated carbon monoxide detector that continues to protect even in the event of a power outage. The First Alert model uses patented biomimetic technology, which simulates the body’s response to CO and will not respond to other gases. A hardwired AC model with battery back-up is also available. In addition to installing carbon monoxide detectors, consumers should regularly inspect and service potential problem sources of carbon monoxide.