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Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

Recently, a couple in New Hampshire was found lifeless in their home. Investigators believe a faulty kitchen appliance, the oven, was to blame for leaking poisonous carbon monoxide gas into the home. Unfortunately, accidents like this one are a fairly common occurrence in our world. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recognizes unintentional carbon monoxide inhalation as being responsible for hundreds of deaths a year and thousands more beyond that are admitted to hospitals after falling ill from exposure. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid letting this happen in your home.

What is Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is frequently referred to as "The Silent Killer" or the "Senseless Killer". It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless toxic gas—basically undetectable by human senses. Carbon monoxide is a product of the incomplete burning of natural gas or any carbon-based material like gasoline, propane, kerosene, oil, coal or wood. CO, when inhaled, displaces oxygen in the blood thereby starving vital organs like the brain and heart of oxygen.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

In keeping with its Silent Killer moniker, carbon monoxide doesn't offer much in terms of warning signs. Common symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea and dizziness, but are indeterminate and often mistaken for the flu or similar ailments. Many victims will lie down thinking they just need rest without ever identifying or removing themselves from the threat. More severe symptoms can include chest pains, vomiting and even confusion or disorientation, however again, few associate these with CO and may not aptly resolve the problem. Prolonged exposure has been linked to heart disease and is suspected to cause more long-term damage.

Sources and Prevention

Many things in your home, while useful, produce carbon monoxide and therefore pose a potential threat. Be aware of CO sources and proper ways to protect you from exposure.

  • Automobile

    Your car is probably the most well-known and productive CO producer in your house. Most of us know not to run the engine in the garage with the door closed, but even having the door open can be hazardous.

  • Fireplace

    Be sure your chimney and flue are clear and functioning properly. The presence of soot inside your home is an indicator that ventilation is poor and hazardous fumes are able to collect inside. Loose masonry or cracks could allow CO to build up in a room, especially in second story rooms or attics.

  • Appliances

    Your water heater, furnace, the aforementioned oven and other common household devices can leak carbon monoxide. Getting regular inspections is highly recommended.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

The most effective way to prevent a carbon monoxide related tragedy is to place CO detectors in your home. These devices sense the presence of carbon monoxide in the air and alert you to the danger.

  • Electrochemical

    Highly sensitive and accurate, these use electrodes immersed in a chemical solution to sense the poisonous gas even at very low levels.

  • Metal Oxide Semiconductorr

    The original CO detector, these use a similar method to that of the electrochemical detectors. In this case the CO affects electrical resistance in the circuitry. These n generally plug into wall outlets as they require more power than a battery can provide.

  • Biomimetic

    Using a special gel, these mimic CO's effect on hemoglobin. The gel changes color as it absorbs carbon monoxide in the air, indicating toxicity.

CO detectors or alarms should be placed on every floor of a home, including the basement. There should be one within 10 feet of each bedroom door and one near or over any attached garage. There are a variety of prices and sensitivities. Families generally don't need industrial-grade sensors, but obviously want something that will keep them safe.

The Journal of the American Medical Association says carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental death in America. Findings like that have led many states to pass laws and regulations requiring detectors in homes and even schools and day-cares. Those in areas where legislation doesn't dictate action are encouraged to research their particular situation and find a preventative solution that works for them.

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