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Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible gas that you should be aware of. You can’t see or smell it; yet it can kill you and your loved ones within minutes if you breathe high concentrations of it. At low levels, it can make you sick.
These are the symptoms of CO poisoning, and you’re right – they resemble those of the flu and other common illnesses, so it can be hard to diagnose. Suspect mild CO poisoning if the symptoms disappear when you leave your house and reoccur when you come home.
CO quickly enters your blood stream and prevents it from delivering the oxygen your body needs to function. People with anemia, heart or lung problems, children and unborn babies are particularly susceptible to its deadly effects. Don’t take any chances if the symptoms come on quickly and you’ve reason to suspect CO poisoning. If you hesitate, you could lose consciousness and die. Get everyone out into fresh air immediately and go to an emergency room. There’s a blood test to check for CO poisoning. Make sure you contact a qualified heating contractor to check your fossil fuel appliances before re-entering your house.
Small amounts of CO are produced whenever fossil fuels such as gas, oil, kerosene, charcoal or wood are burned. When these fuels burn efficiently and are exhausted properly, CO is not produced. But trouble comes quickly when the burn is incomplete and exhaust accidentally leaks inside your house. Sometimes when a fossil fuel appliance is operating at the same time as a powerful exhaust vent, combustion gases can be sucked out of the appliance or pipe and enter the house. This scary event is called appliance backdrafting. You can protect your household by having a trained professional perform a safety inspection on all fuel-burning appliances. Call a heating contractor for an appointment. This is the most important step you can take! These appliances include gas or oil furnaces, water heaters, ranges, ovens, cooktops, clothes dryers, portable kerosene or gas space heaters, wood or coal stoves and fireplaces.
The contractor should check to make sure:
While prevention of CO should be your first priority, you can also install digital CO detectors. Plug-in and battery-powered detectors are designed to sound an alarm when they sense harmful CO levels. Make sure the detectors you buy meet American Gas Association or Underwriters Laboratories (UL2034) standard and use them only as a back-up measure, not as a substitute for common sense and an annual appliance inspection and maintenance. When you purchase the detector, note the life expectancy of the sensor cell located inside the detector – the cell may not last forever and may have to be replaced according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. If your detector is battery-powered, the battery should be tested monthly and replaced annually (just like a smoke detector). Install detectors on the wall or ceiling outside your bedroom.
When using fossil fuel appliances, look for these warning signs:
If your home is energy-efficient – if it’s insulated and air leaks are sealed with caulking and weatherstripping – you must be extra careful. Please be sure all combustion appliances are operating properly, because CO levels can build up rapidly in a tight home.