We all know a natural gas leak reeks of rotten eggs. But what does an excess of carbon monoxide smell like? Absolutely nothing.
"Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless -- but toxic and potentially deadly -- gas emitted by common household appliances," says Tom Russo, president of First Alert. And whether you live in a mansion or a fifth-floor walk-up, everyone risks exposure to carbon monoxide poisoning because it originates from anything that burns fuel. That means furnaces, stoves, water heaters, grills, fireplaces, and cars.
In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide poisoning is the leading cause of accidental poisoning, responsible for about 400 deaths a year and sending an additional 20,000 people to the emergency room.
Read on to learn how to protect yourself and your family from this quiet killer in your home.
What is carbon monoxide?
Whenever you burn fossil fuels such as gas, coal, oil, and wood -- which contain carbon -- carbon monoxide (CO) is produced. As long as devices that burn these fuels are properly installed and maintained, very little is produced, but if the burner isn't getting enough oxygen to bind to the carbon to produce harmless carbon dioxide (CO2), or if there isn't enough ventilation, you could end up with a dangerous amount of carbon monoxide.
Why is carbon monoxide poisoning deadly?
When you breathe, oxygen binds to the hemoglobin in your blood and then gets delivered to your vital organs. Carbon monoxide binds 240 times better to hemoglobin than oxygen, so inhaling carbon monoxide displaces the oxygen in your blood. You get sick when your vital organs and tissues become oxygen-deprived, causing many people to pass out.
What are the symptoms?
Diagnosing carbon monoxide poisoning can be tricky, because symptoms mimic those of other illnesses (such as the flu). The signs to watch for include nausea, headaches, dizziness, weakness, chest pain, and vomiting. Carbon monoxide poisoning may occur sooner in young children, the elderly, people with lung or heart disease, and smokers. Sleeping people can die before they exhibit any symptoms.
How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
- Install CO alarms! Alarms are the only way to detect carbon monoxide, yet nearly half of all Americans don't have them in their homes.The National Fire Protection Association recommends installing a carbon monoxide alarm on each level of a house and in a central location outside each sleeping area. Do a monthly alarm test and change batteries every six months. Since prolonged exposure to low-level carbon monoxide has been proven to be harmful to those with a weak or compromised immune system, consider an alarm that can detect both high- and low-level carbon monoxide. If any carbon monoxide alarm sounds, leave your home immediately and call 911.
- Indoor awareness: Never use generators, charcoal grills, camp stoves, or any gas-burning appliance indoors, in a garage, or in any confined area.
- Stove safety: The kitchen stove is a frequent source of carbon monoxide poisoning. Always run an exhaust fan when cooking, especially when the stove is left on for a long time. Periodically, open a window to allow fresh air to circulate.
- Be extra vigilant in winter: Nearly 41% of carbon monoxide exposure occurs during the winter months, when burning wood and other fuel is at a high. Have a qualified technician inspect fuel-burning appliances every year to detect any carbon monoxide leaks.
- Garage danger: Never leave a car running in an attached garage -- even if the garage door is open, because carbon monoxide emissions can still leak into your home.
In other words, carbon monoxide may be a stealth killer, but it's easy to keep the risk at bay as long as you take a few simple precautions to keep it out of your home.