Fire Safety Education:Carbon Monoxide – The Silent Killer

W hat is carbon monoxide (CO)? It is a tasteless, odorless, invisible gas that is produced as a byproduct of incomplete combustion, or simpler said of anything that has a flame. CO weighs about the same as air (specific gravity 0.965. air is 1), so it mixes well with air. Because you can’t see it, smell it or taste it, it is often known as the “silent killer.” The following commonly asked questions and their answers can serve as a guide for fire safety educators when making presentations to the public about the dangers of CO.

What makes CO so dangerous?

The hemoglobin in the blood stream is what carries gases, mainly oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). But it would much rather carry carbon monoxide, 200 times that more than oxygen. Once in the blood stream, it produces a toxin known as carboxyhemoglobin (COHb). Carboxyhemoglobin produces flu-like symptoms at first such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizzy spells, confusion and irritability. Because the symptoms are similar to the flu, many people suffering from CO poisoning are unaware and blame it on the flu. As levels of the COHb rise, the victim may begin to vomit and eventually experience loss of consciousness. If corrective action is not taken immediately, death is imminent.

What are some common CO producers in the average home?

Anything that uses a fuel or has a flame produces carbon monoxide. Propane, butane, natural gas, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, white fuel, camping fuel, heating oil, charcoal, wood, leaves, paper, cardboard or clothing are just some of the examples of fuels that can produce CO. Appliances that use these fuels include: furnaces, fireplaces, barbecues, hibachis, stoves, ovens, water heaters, space heaters, generators, lawnmowers, weed-eaters, automobiles, motorcycles and camping lanterns and stoves.

Appliances such as furnaces, fireplaces and water heaters are vented to the outside of the home either by a vent pipe or chimney. In many places, a vented-hood over the stove leads to an outside vent pipe. If the appliance is not vented to the outside, or if the vent to the outside is not working properly, CO can accumulate in the home.

What are some of the causes of CO poisoning in the home?

Furnaces are one source. Perhaps the vent pipe outside is blocked, the heat exchanger is cracked or the filters are clogged and not letting fresh air enter the furnace. Cooking for long periods while using the oven and all the burners can build up CO in the kitchen.

A closed damper in a fireplace or wood-burning stove can cause CO to stay in the home. CO can build up when using fuel-powered equipment, including generators, buffers, saws and other tools, inside a building or using outside cooking equipment in the home, including those that use propane/butane or charcoal for cooking or heating. Another source is vehicles running in a garage.

How do CO alarms work?

A carbon monoxide alarm is not the same as a smoke alarm, as they work on different principles, although there are smoke alarms that also have built-in carbon monoxide alarms. A carbon monoxide alarm triggers an alarm based on exposure to CO over time. It is designed to sound an alarm before an average, healthy adult would experience symptoms. Carbon monoxide alarms are designed to alert the occupants of the presence of the gas before it has a chance to make you sick.

With carbon monoxide, it is the concentration of CO over time that poses a threat. Since carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in your blood, it can harm you if you are exposed to either high levels of CO in a short period or to lower levels of CO over a longer period.

When installing, follow the directions on the package. CO alarms should be replaced every five years.

If a CO alarm sounds, people should be evacuated outside immediately and notify 9-1-1. For those overcome or are unconscious, they should be removed to a safe place outside and given oxygen, perform artificial ventilation or CPR if indicated. Transport to a medical facility immediately. Advise medical staff you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. n