Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas that has been heavily studied since the late 1200s. Researchers say Spanish alchemist Arnold of Villanova first discovered the poisonous gas when examining the incomplete combustion of wood. According to historical records, Villanova described an invisible poisonous gas that scientists today believe was most likely the existence of carbon monoxide fumes.
Over the next five centuries, carbon monoxide was a topic of interest across several fields of scientific research. In the 1850s, French physiologist Claude Benard discovered which properties of carbon monoxide caused the gas to become fatal for warm-blooded animals. And in 1877, French physicist Louis Paul Cailletet achieved a significant milestone when he was able to transform carbon monoxide into a liquid.
Despite the centuries of research, thousands of people around the world still die every year from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning; at least 400 of these fatalities occur in the United States according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.).
The winter months are especially dangerous for carbon monoxide leaks. Not only are there more chances for exposure as fuel-powered equipment and heating systems become more popular in homes, but people are also more likely to spend most of the day inside where the toxic gas is unable to escape. The colder the temperatures are outside, the harder your heating system has to work, and the higher your risk for exposure if wear and tear leads to a deadly leak.
As we welcome the official beginning of winter only days away, now is the time to protect your home from carbon monoxide. Educating your family on the risks of carbon monoxide is the best place to start. Familiarize everyone in your home with how to identify the equipment that produces carbon monoxide gas, the symptoms to watch for, and with the emergency plan to follow if you do experience a leak this winter.
What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a natural byproduct produced from burning fuel. Nicknamed the ‘silent killer,’ carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, often going undetected until victims begin feeling the ill effects of contaminated air.
According to Mayo Clinic, carbon monoxide is fatal to humans and warm-blooded animals because of its ability to suffocate from the inside out. Carbon monoxide inhibits red blood cells from obtaining the oxygen they need to carry to the rest of the body. When enough of the toxin circulates through the bloodstream, carbon monoxide can result in brain damage, heart damage, miscarriage for pregnant women, and even death when exposure is high.
Carbon monoxide gas is most often found in the fumes produced by fuel-burning appliances and equipment. The most common fuels emitting CO gas include:
- natural gas
- diesel fuel
Carbon monoxide produced outdoors has plenty of room to dissipate into the air, only entering the body in small amounts if at all. However, when carbon monoxide gas is produced in small, enclosed spaces, the sudden buildup can prove to be fatal without a means of escape.
CO Dangers In The Winter
Carbon monoxide leaks can be especially fatal during the winter months when temperatures are low, and people remain indoors for the majority of the day. In January, historically the coldest month of the year, the C.D.C. reports an average of two fatalities a day related to unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning
Heating systems that produce carbon monoxide are designed to release the gas through flues or vents safely, but these systems are not perfect. When flues are blocked, or pipes become cracked, carbon monoxide can seep back into the home. Since doors and windows are sealed tight in the winter to prevent drafts, the poisonous gas becomes trapped. Consistently running systems will continue to produce carbon monoxide to unhealthy levels until the issue is found and repaired.
Carbon monoxide can also enter your home when outdoor tools are used in enclosed spaces, or fuel-burning equipment is used incorrectly as a method of heating the home. Examples include using propane lanterns, outdoor grills, and gas ovens. These appliances produce unhealthy amounts of carbon monoxide in a short amount of time that are not meant to be running for long periods.
When winter power outages occur, generators are used to keep homes warm. But when generators are used in basements, garages, crawl space, or are positioned too close to a residence, carbon monoxide will build up inside the home.
What Produces CO?
Any tool, appliance, or heating equipment that burns fuel produces carbon monoxide. While most have a system to contain and dispose of the deadly gas, not all do. Some of the most dangerous carbon monoxide producers in the winter months include:
- snow blowers
- space heaters
- portable generators
- gas stoves (when used for heat)
- water heaters
- wood stoves
With the invention of the keyless vehicle, some drivers are putting their families at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning by forgetting to turn off their vehicle. Keyless cars that run in closed garages can produce deadly levels of carbon monoxide gas, with no place to go but inside of your house. These horrific errors have resulted in more than one tragedy when carbon monoxide has been responsible for killing entire families in their sleep.
Who Is Most At Risk?
Some groups are more at risk for serious health consequences from carbon monoxide exposure than others. These groups include:
- Older Adults: Individuals over the age of 65 may be more likely to experience brain damage from even minimal exposure.
- Pregnant Women: Unborn babies are highly susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning because their cells are highly absorbent.
- Children: Young children breathe more frequently than adults, therefore taking in more carbon monoxide into their body when it’s present in the air.
- Chronically Ill: Patients who are diagnosed with anemia, breathing problems, or heart disease are more likely to become seriously ill from exposure to carbon monoxide.
Know The Symptoms
In some circumstances, recognizing the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning could be your first clue that a leak has occurred. Everyone will react differently when exposed to carbon monoxide, but the most common symptoms to watch for include:
- unexplained fatigue
- trouble breathing
During the winter season, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often misdiagnosed as the flu. If you or your family members have begun to experience a sudden onset of these symptoms, and have had no recent contact with someone with the flu, get your CO levels tested immediately to rule out a leak.
CO Detectors Save Lives
Installing working carbon monoxide detectors is the most effective way to monitor carbon monoxide gas in your home. These life-saving devices provide an early warning signal when the toxic CO gas is detected, alerting the household similar to a smoke alarm when it’s time to find fresh air.
Carbon monoxide detectors are user-friendly and relatively inexpensive. Most manufacturers also make dual detectors featuring smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. These combo models make it easier for homeowners to manage with fewer detectors to maintain.
Proper installation and placement are key to providing the earliest possible detection of poisonous gas in your home. These are the best practices outlined by Safety.com when it comes to installing CO detectors:
- Make sure your detector is approved be Underwriters Laboratories (U.L.), which shows the manufacturer has met strict guidelines for safety.
- Install CO detectors on every level of your home and outside the door of all rooms where people sleep.
- Install CO detectors at least 15-20 feet from gas-powered home equipment and appliances.
- Read the manual for your CO detector to familiarize your family with the alerts and features. Alarms have a variety of ranges that may require different placement methods.
- Install CO detectors in your home within 10 feet from an attached garage.
- Connect your detectors when possible so all alarms go off when one detects CO gas.
- Place CO detectors five feet up on the wall.
- Avoid areas that could negatively impact the reading of carbon monoxide, including near gas or fossil fuel areas, humid or moist environments, bathrooms, direct sunlight, within reach of children, near windows or windy areas, behind doors, cabinets, curtains, or other areas that could prevent detection.
Carbon monoxide detectors are widely sold at most popular stores and online shopping venues. Some of the most popular brands and products currently on the market include:
If you’re looking for more advanced features, check out Safety.com’s list of Best CO Detectors of 2019 here.
How To Prevent CO Leaks
It only takes a few simple steps to protect your family from deadly carbon monoxide exposure this winter. In addition to installing CO detectors, these are the most crucial steps to start with highlighted by Mayo Clinic:
- Open the garage door and pull your vehicle out before starting your car. Leaving your car running in a space attached to the rest of your house is never safe, even with the garage door open.
- Use gas appliances as recommended. Do not use a gas stove or oven to heat your home.
- Use portable gas camp stoves outdoors only.
- Use fuel-burning space heaters only when someone is awake to monitor them and doors or windows are open to provide fresh air.
- Don't run a generator in an enclosed space, such as a basement or garage. All generators should remain at least 15 feet away from any window or door to your home.
- Keep your fuel-burning appliances and engines properly vented.
- Ask your utility company about yearly checkups for all gas appliances, including your furnace.
- Clean your fireplace chimney and flue every year to prevent buildup.
- Keep vents and chimneys unblocked during remodeling. Check that they aren't covered by tarps or debris.
- If carbon monoxide poisoning has occurred in your home, it's critical to find and repair the source of the carbon monoxide before you stay there again.
- Use caution when working with solvents in a closed area. Methylene chloride, a solvent commonly found in paint and varnish removers, can break down (metabolize) into carbon monoxide when inhaled. Exposure to methylene chloride can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
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Carbon monoxide poisoning is 100 percent preventable. Keep your family safe this season by staying alert and prepared for the possibility of leaks in your home.
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