Carbon monoxide doesn’t have to be a silent killer.
“The only way to detect it is with a carbon monoxide detector,” said Jim Welch, chief of Mansfield Hose Company. “The batteries, like in smoke detectors, should be changed every six months. We usually tell people, when you change your clocks, change your detector’s batteries.”
Welch said many detectors come as combination smoke/carbon monoxide and newer ones even have built-in batteries with a 10-year lifespan, so keeping your family safe from the odorless, colorless gas should be a no-brainer.
Causes of CO leaks
“Depending on the heat source in the home, the age of boilers or furnaces, or if there’s windy conditions all play a factor,” said Welch.
CO fumes are produced naturally when burning fossil fuels in vehicles, engines, gas appliances, furnaces, chimneys or boilers; coal is one of the biggest culprits, as well as natural gas and less frequently, propane or wood.
Welch said leaks occur when CO gets backed up in a closed structure, most often during the winter months when homeowners are using more heat. Wind may also play a factor, because backdrafts through flues can force more CO into a closed-off area. In this case, however, Welch said CO levels will usually drop when the wind dies down, something CO detectors are equipped to recognize.
“Leaks are caused usually either because a furnace is not functioning properly, or there’s a blockage in a flue or vent of the furnace,” said Welch. “There is no safe level of carbon monoxide in a home.”
Symptoms of CO poisoning
Welch said besides being odorless and colorless, CO is especially dangerous because it shares many symptoms with the common flu – a headache followed by nausea, vomiting, weakness and dizziness.
“Unfortunately, even if there are low levels in the home, the more people stay home and are exposed, the more CO increases in the bloodstream,” he said. “Some people might think it’s just the flu, so they stay home and just continue to be exposed.”
Welch said being exposed to either high levels of CO in a short period of time or low levels over a longer period can cause symptoms like confusion, unconsciousness, respiratory issues, cardiac arrest or death.
If people or their pets start experiencing such symptoms, or if their CO alarm goes off, Welch said the first steps are to immediately evacuate everyone from the structure and call 911. In most cases, fire and ambulance departments will respond to evaluate symptoms and assess the level of CO in the home.
“Most departments have a standalone detector that gives us real-time readings of the CO level in the home. Some use a multi-gas system that detects things like oxygen level, too,” said Welch.
After getting that reading and determining where the source of the leak is, fire personnel will ventilate the home and contact a furnace or appliance repair company to inspect the system and exhaust.
Welch stressed that installing a CO detector or a combination smoke/CO detector is the only way to detect leaks. They can be purchased online or just about anywhere plumbing and hardware supplies are sold, with most having a 10-year expiration date indicated on the bottom of the device. Detector batteries should be changed every six months, unless the model has the built-in 10-year batteries.
Welch said detectors put out an alarm depending on a combination of time and detection of CO in a reading of parts-per-million. He said while the ideal CO level in a structure is zero, a reading of 15 PPM over 8-12 hours is considered low, and won’t cause most detectors to go off. Readings of 50 PPM and higher are considered dangerous, which cause CO detectors to sound.
The fact that Mansfield Hose Company responds to two or three CO-related incidents a month during the winter means more people are using detectors, said Welch.
“Most of the time when we go, it’s an issue with the detector or batteries expiring, but occasionally, we have had CO in the home,” he said.
Welch also said to mitigate CO risks, homeowners should also get natural gas heating or appliances regularly inspected to make sure they’re working properly and burning efficiently. Things like cars, grills or anything with a small engine such as generators should never be run indoors, even if windows are open.
“Ultimately, when in doubt, whether you suspect a leak, your CO detector actually goes off, or you’re having symptoms, definitely call 911,” said Welch. “Don’t take a chance.”