Filed Under:Risk Management, Weather Risk

The invisible killer: Carbon monoxide safety tips for your home and car

Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning. (AP Photo)
Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning. (AP Photo)

Carbon monoxide (CO) is often called the "invisible killer" or "silent killer" because it's a colorless, odorless, tasteless, poisonous gas. People and animals can be poisoned and can die from breathing CO. Poisoning comes from inhaling enough of the gas that it replaces oxygen in the blood.

400 accidental deaths each year

Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, more than 20,000 visit the emergency room and more than 4,000 Americans are hospitalized due to CO poisoning.

According to the CDC, more deaths from CO exposure occur in the winter months than at any other time. That’s because generators and space heaters are more heavily used in the colder months, and ventilation is often sacrificed for warmth. Even warming up your vehicle with the garage doors open for a few minutes can produce enough carbon monoxide to make you sick.

Recent tragedies

In late January, at least six people died of carbon monoxide poisoning after the massive East Coast snowstorm, according to the NBC television station in Washington, D.C. In New Jersey, 23-year-old Sashalynn Rosa and her 1-year-old son, Messiah Bonilla, died of carbon monoxide poisoning while sitting in a running car that had its tailpipe covered in snow. 

Seven residents of an apartment complex in Herndon, Va., were hospitalized after the complex’s ground floor furnace room had its vents completely blocked by snow. 

Carbon monoxide also killed two people earlier in January in Tuscaloosa, Ala. There was no power in the house and the couple living in the home was using the generator inside their home. The generator was in an area of the house away from the victims, but wind conditions apparently caused the exhaust to expand into the rest of the house, even though the couple probably thought the house was well ventilated.

On Jan. 29, 2016, an Omaha, Neb., man died and his sister is recovering after being poisoned by carbon monoxide. Investigators say it appears a car was accidentally left running in the garage overnight.

Police Department personnel remove one of the bodies from a home where four people were found dead Friday, April 10, 2015

Police Department personnel remove one of the bodies from a home where four people were found dead Friday, April 10, 2015, in the Floral Park neighborhood in New York, next to Long Island's Nassau County. Police say the four people in their 70s and 80s have been found dead in an apparent carbon monoxide poisoning after a car was left running in an attached garage. (Photo: Louis Lanzano/AP Photo)

What is carbon monoxide?

CO is produced when any fuel does not burn completely because of insufficient oxygen. Running cars, boats and recreational vehicles produce CO. Equipment powered by internal combustion engines such as portable generators, lawn mowers, and power washers also produce CO.

Possible sources of CO in the home include the furnace or boiler; gas or fuel-oil water heater; gas or wood fireplace; gas kitchen range; space heater; lantern; plugged, rusted, disconnected or defective chimneys or vents; back-drafting of combustion gases into the home; and automobiles in attached garages.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

Mild exposure to CO gives most people a slight headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue ("flu-like" symptoms) followed by a throbbing headache, drowsiness, confusion and a fast heart rate. If the entire family becomes ill after a few hours in the home, and feels better when they leave the home, carbon monoxide poisoning should be suspected.

The health effects of CO depend on the CO concentration and length of exposure, as well as each individual's health condition. CO concentration is measured in parts per million (ppm). Most people will not experience any symptoms from prolonged exposure to CO levels of approximately 1 to 70 ppm but some heart patients might experience an increase in chest pain. As CO levels increase and remain above 70 ppm, symptoms become more noticeable and can include headache, fatigue and nausea. At sustained CO concentrations above 150 to 200 ppm, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death are possible.

Young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of carbon monoxide because of their smaller bodies. Children process carbon monoxide differently than adults, may be more severely affected by it, and may show signs of poisoning sooner, according to SafeKids.org

First Alert Onelink Wi-Fi Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarm

The First Alert Onelink Wi-Fi Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm is on display at CES Unveiled, a media preview event for CES International, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Las Vegas. The device monitors for smoke and carbon monoxide and can send alerts to a mobile device. (Photo: John Locher/AP Photo)

Home carbon monoxide alarms

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that every residence with fuel-burning appliances be equipped with at least one Underwriters Laboratories-listed CO alarm. For added protection, place one on every level of the home. Read and follow manufacturers' instructions. If your alarm indicates high levels of carbon monoxide in your home:

  • Immediately move outdoors to fresh air and do a head count.
  • Call your emergency services, fire department or 9-1-1.
  • Do not re-enter the home until emergency service responders have arrived, aired out the house, and determined it is safe to re-enter.
  • Correct the problem before starting the heating appliances.
  • If a carbon monoxide alarm sound again, repeat the above steps. 

Never ignore an alarming CO alarm! It's warning you of a potentially deadly hazard.

Install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Place your detector where it will wake you up if it alarms, such as outside your bedroom. Consider buying a detector with a digital readout. This detector can tell you the highest level of CO concentration in your home in addition to alarming. Replace your CO detector every five years.

David Mayer, owner of Mayer's Heating Service and plumber David Murphy, left, connect a new direct vent furnace into a house in East Wareham, Mass.

David Mayer, owner of Mayer's Heating Service and plumber David Murphy, left, connect a new direct vent furnace into a house in East Wareham, Mass. (Photo: Stephan Savoia/AP Photo)

Carbon monoxide home safety tips

Certain clues can indicate a carbon monoxide problem in your home. The USA.gov publication "Making your home safe from fire and carbon monoxide" recommends you check to see if you have any of the following:

  • Rusting or streaking on chimney or vent.
  • Loose or missing furnace panel.
  • Soot on venting or appliances.
  • Loose or disconnected venting.
  • Debris or soot falling from chimney.
  • Moisture on interior side of windows.

Smoke slowly billows from the chimney stacks on houses

Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year. Chimneys can be blocked by debris. This can cause CO to build up inside your home. (Photo: Jens Meyer/AP Photo)

Follow these recommendations to help keep your home safe from carbon monoxide:

  • Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Never use any appliance if you suspect it might be faulty.
  • Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors.
  • If you smell an odor from your gas refrigerator have an expert service it. An odor from your gas refrigerator can mean it could be leaking CO.
  • When you buy gas equipment, buy only equipment carrying the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters Laboratories.
  • Make sure your gas appliances are vented properly. Horizontal vent pipes for appliances, such as a water heater, should go up slightly as they go toward outdoors, as shown below. This prevents CO from leaking if the joints or pipes aren’t fitted tightly.
  • Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year. Chimneys can be blocked by debris. This can cause CO to build up inside your home or cabin.
  • Never patch a vent pipe with tape, gum, or something else. This kind of patch can make CO build up in your home, cabin or camper.
  • Never use a gas range or oven for heating. Using a gas range or oven for heating can cause a build up of CO inside your home, cabin or camper.
  • Never burn charcoal indoors. Burning charcoal — red, gray, black or white — gives off CO.
  • Never use a portable gas camp stove indoors. Using a gas camp stove indoors can cause CO to build up inside your home, cabin or camper.
  • Never use a generator inside your home, basement or garage or less than 20 feet from any window, door or vent.

Rhianna McCarte, 30, clears snow from her car, before digging it out, in Alexandria, Va., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016.

Rhianna McCarte, 30, clears snow from her car, before digging it out, in Alexandria, Va., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. Make sure the tailpipe is clear of snow before starting a vehicle. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP Photo)

Carbon monoxide auto safety tips

The lethal consequences of CO in engine exhaust is tragically illustrated by the hundreds of persons who die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a running vehicle inside a closed garage, while stranded in their car, or while driving or riding in a vehicle with a defective exhaust system.

What causes carbon monoxide poisoning from vehicles?

  • Operating a vehicle with a defective exhaust system.
  • Operating a vehicle with a defective emission system or poorly tuned engine.
  • Driving a vehicle with the trunk lid or rear tailgate open.
  • Driving a vehicle with holes in the car body.
  • Allowing children to ride under a topper on a pick-up truck.
  • Warming up a vehicle in a garage, even with the outside garage door open.
  • Operating vehicles in a garage, carwash, or any enclosed building.

Homeowner Rachelle Boucher, left, tests a carbon monoxide and smoke detector in the garage of her new home office building

Homeowner Rachelle Boucher, left, tests a carbon monoxide and smoke detector in the garage of her new home. (Photo: Chitose Suzuki/AP Photo)

Tips to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in vehicles:

  • Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of your car or truck every year. A small leak in the exhaust system can lead to a build up of CO inside the car.
  • Never run your car or truck inside a garage that is attached to a house even with the garage door open. Always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a car or truck inside.
  • If you drive a car or SUV with a tailgate, when you open the tailgate open the vents or windows to make sure air is moving through. If only the tailgate is open CO from the exhaust will be pulled into the car or SUV.
  • Never run a motor vehicle, generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine outside an open window, door, or vent where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.
  • If your car is keyless and you park in an attached garage, do not forget to turn off the car. Each year, people are found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in their home and the cause was a car left running in the garage.
  • Make sure to remove any snow that could block the tail pipe.
  • If sitting in an idling car, always keep the windowpartially opened.
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in your vehicle. 

Related: Car thieves target idling cars

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