What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is sometimes called “a silent killer” because it is a tasteless, odorless and invisible gas that is toxic to humans, even in relatively small concentrations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 400 Americans die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning each year and more than 20,000 visit the emergency room due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Where does carbon monoxide come from?

Carbon monoxide, also known by the scientific term CO, is a byproduct of incomplete combustion, which means it sometimes occurs in natural settings and can be a result of forest fires or volcanic activity. However, CO is more often produced by human activity and can be present at toxic levels in households or in industrial settings.
carbon monoxide detector

Here are some of the most common everyday sources:

  • Vehicle exhaust fumes
  • Leaking chimneys and furnaces
  • Wood and gas stoves
  • Space heaters
  • Gas water heaters
  • Fireplaces
  • Gas-powered household appliances and power tools
  • Generators

What are the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning?

When CO is inhaled by humans, it enters the bloodstream and deprives major organs of oxygen. The effects of CO poisoning can vary depending on a person’s age and health. Although the gas is harmful to people of all ages, it is particularly threatening to unborn babies, infants, elderly adults and people with pre-existing medical conditions. The gas can also be especially threatening to cigarette smokers, who already have higher than average levels of CO in their blood.

The effects of carbon monoxide poisoning also vary tremendously depending on the concentration of the gas that is inhaled. In small, enclosed spaces with little or no ventilation, such as a garage, CO can be fatal within a short period of exposure.

At lower levels of exposure, CO poisoning can cause flu-like symptoms, such as vomiting, headache, dizziness and confusion. Individuals who are exposed to higher levels of may experience memory loss, permanent brain damage or even death.

How can you protect yourself from CO poisoning?

The most important step you can take to protect yourself is to install CO detectors in your home. These devices operate in much the same way as smoke detectors. They will trigger a loud alarm if they detect a dangerous concentration of the gas in your home.

You should install at least one CO detector on every level of your home and near every sleeping area. The detectors should be installed about five feet above the ground, as the gas rises with warm air.

If the alarm of your carbon monoxide detector is triggered, you should immediately call the fire department and leave your home. You should not re-enter until you have been given the OK by emergency responders.