Carbon monoxide is especially dangerous because it is incredibly hard to detect. The odorless and colorless gas is extremely toxic and can cause severe injury or even death due to overexposure. Because the gas is undetectable by smell, periodic inspection and maintenance of your HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system is recommended to keep the danger at bay and keep your family safe.
Whether you own your home or rent, it is crucial to your health and the health of your family to understand what carbon monoxide is and how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
What is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a tasteless, colorless, odorless gas found in the fumes of fuels that contain carbon, such as wood, coal and gasoline. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a potentially fatal illness that occurs when people breathe in carbon monoxide.
Once inhaled, carbon monoxide passes from your lungs into your bloodstream, where it attaches to the hemoglobin molecules that normally carry oxygen. Oxygen cannot travel on a hemoglobin molecule that already has carbon monoxide attached to it. As exposure continues, the gas hijacks more and more hemoglobin molecules, and the blood gradually loses its ability to carry enough oxygen to meet your body’s needs. Without enough oxygen, individual cells suffocate and die, especially in vital organs such as the brain and heart. Carbon monoxide also can act directly as a poison, interfering with cells’ internal chemical reactions.
How Does Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Happen?
Carbon monoxide gas is produced from burning combustible fossil fuels such as natural gas, propane, gasoline, kerosene or oil, among others. Home appliances that use these types of fuels are connected to a vent stack that diverts the fumes to the outside, where they are absorbed or dissipate into the atmosphere. When these vents become obstructed or cracked, they allow the gas to escape and potentially accumulate in your home’s attic and crawl space. When combined with a leaking air conditioner system, the dangers grow exponentially. This derives from the chance the vacuum created inside the HVAC duct — when your system is running — can suck in this poisonous gas and disperse it throughout your home.
Effects of Chronic Exposure to Carbon Monoxide
Chronic exposure to carbon monoxide can have extremely serious long-term effects, depending on the extent of poisoning. The section of the brain known as the hippocampus is responsible for the formation of new memories and is particularly susceptible to damage.
Up to 40% of people who have suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning experience problems such as amnesia, headaches, memory loss, personality and behavioral changes, loss of bladder and muscle control, and impaired vision and coordination. These effects do not always present themselves immediately and can occur several weeks or more after exposure. Whilst the majority of people suffering from long-term effects of carbon monoxide poisoning recover with time, some people suffer permanent effects, particularly when it comes to organ and brain damage.
Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be particularly dangerous for people who are sleeping or intoxicated. People may have irreversible brain damage or even die before anyone realizes there’s a problem.
- Dull headache
- Difficulty breathing
- Blurred vision
- Sudden sleepiness
- Loss of consciousness
Prolonged exposure and lack of medical treatment may lead to serious and long-term effects and may even be life-threatening.
Carbon Monoxide in the Home
Carbon monoxide (CO) forms when fuel undergoes incomplete combustion. Fuel like gas, charcoal, propane and wood can produce carbon monoxide.
Usually, there are very small amounts of carbon monoxide in the earth’s atmosphere but the concentration is very low and does not cause typically cause harm. However, when the gasses get trapped in an enclosed space, carbon monoxide is allowed to accumulate and can cause serious harm.
When inhaled, carbon monoxide deprives the body of oxygen resulting in your tissues dying. If your exposure continues, even for a short period of time, you will suffer from organ failure and even death. We are not here to cause panic, but we do need to point out the seriousness of the situation.
You would be surprised to learn that the common items in your house can become lethal if not used properly. The following are some of them:
- Clothes dryer
- Grill (except electric types)
- Wood and gas stoves
- Water heater
- Gas and wood-burning fireplaces
- Chemical heaters
- Motor vehicles
This is not to say that just because you have these items at home that you will experience carbon monoxide poisoning. The important part here is to use the appliances properly and get it checked by a professional technician periodically.
Who Is At High Risk of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
Carbon monoxide exposure is dangerous for everyone. However, there are some who are more vulnerable to poisoning. The following individuals should be more careful:
- Children. Kids have a higher respiratory rate than adults, which means they take more breaths. For this reason, a high CO concentration in the air can speed up potential poisoning.
- Pregnant Women. Unborn babies are at high risk of carbon monoxide poisoning because fetal cells absorb a lot of CO when exposed to it.
- Elderly. With age come a weakened immune system and the inability to recover as quickly. In many cases, exposure to CO will cause brain damage to older people.
- People with Heart Disease. Those with chronic heart disease are susceptible to CO poisoning. Also, persons with anemia and breathing issues are prone to severe complications.
What to Do If You Suspect a Carbon Monoxide Leak
If CO is detected with an alarm device, or if you suspect from your symptoms that you or your family members have been exposed to CO, leave the area of exposure immediately and go to the emergency department. Call the Poison Control Center for further instruction. The gas company, oil company or local health authority can provide help in identifying and removing sources of CO contamination.
Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Periodic inspection, and when necessary, repairs to your gas appliances and HVAC system can help to reduce carbon monoxide exposure. By keeping these appliances and their ductwork in tip-top condition, you can significantly reduce or eliminate this deadly gas from entering your living areas.
- Install a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detector throughout your home.
- Never leave an automobile or other gas-powered equipment such as a lawn mower running in a closed garage. Back your car out of the garage when allowing it to warm up.
- Place generators as far from homes as possible (minimum of 25 feet), but also at a safe distance from any nearby dwellings.
- Never use a gas or charcoal grill in your home or in an enclosed area near the house where the smoke and fumes cannot escape.
- Follow manufacturer’s operating instructions and precautions when using a space heater.
- Never heat homes with a gas oven or by burning charcoal.
- Ensure that fuel-burning space heaters are properly vented.
- If you suspect carbon monoxide gas in your home, open the windows and leave the premises immediately.
Chances are, you have got a perfectly safe gas furnace system and, if you have carbon monoxide detectors, you are most likely just fine. However, that does not minimize the real danger that carbon monoxide leaks pose to our customers and community. Stay smart and stay vigilant.
If your system needs repair or inspection before winter, call us on 951-926-1002. You can also visit our Contact page and complete the contact form.