Carbon monoxide, also known as CO, is called the "Invisible Killer" because it's a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. More than 150 people in the United States die every year from accidental non-fire related CO poisoning associated with consumer products, including generators. You can’t see it, smell it, or taste it, but carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas that can kill you if breathed in. It can take your life without warning. Most people that die due to CO die at night while asleep—they don’t wake up because CO puts them in a deeper sleep and they are unable to respond and escape.
When air containing CO is inhaled, it displaces oxygen in the bloodstream and reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to vital organs such as the heart and brain. Unborn babies, infants, children, senior citizens, and people with heart and breathing problems are at especially high risk. The symptoms of CO poisoning are flu-like, including headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and confusion. Prolonged exposure can result in vomiting, blackouts, and, eventually, brain damage and death. The amount of CO inhaled and how long you are exposed to it determines the effect.
Where does CO come from?
CO is a product of incomplete combustion. Any fuel-burning device has the potential to produce dangerous levels of CO gas. Examples of common devices that may emit CO include fuel-fired furnaces (not electric); gas water heaters; fireplaces and wood stoves; gas stoves; non-electric space heaters; gas dryers; charcoal grills; lawnmowers, snow blowers, etc.; automobiles; and gas powered generators.
What can be done to prevent CO poisoning?
Since carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, the best way to alert your family is to install a carbon monoxide detector/alarm to warn of the gas’s build-up.
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CO Alarm Installation
Choose a CO alarm that has the label of a recognized testing laboratory. Install and maintain CO alarms inside your home to provide early warning of carbon monoxide.
CO alarms should be installed in a central location outside each separate sleeping area, on every level of the home, and in other locations where required by applicable laws, codes or standards. For the best protection, have CO alarms that are interconnected throughout the home. When one sounds, they all sound.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for placement and mounting height.
Combination smoke-CO alarms must be installed in accordance with requirements for smoke alarms.
CO alarms are not substitutes for smoke alarms and vice versa. Know the difference between the sound of smoke alarms and the sound of CO alarms.
CO Alarms: Testing and Replacement
Test CO alarms at least once a month and replace them if they fail to respond correctly when tested. The sensors in CO alarms have a limited life. Replace the CO alarm according to manufacturer’s instructions or when the end-of-life signal sounds.
Know the difference between the sound of the CO alarm and the smoke alarm, and their low-battery signals. If the audible low battery signal sounds, replace the batteries or replace the device. If the CO alarm still sounds, get to a fresh air location and call 911.
To keep CO alarms working well, follow manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning.
Have fuel-burning heating equipment (fireplaces, furnaces, water heaters, wood stoves, coal stoves, space heaters and portable heaters) and chimneys inspected by a professional every year.
Open the damper for proper ventilation before using a fireplace.
Never use your oven or stovetop to heat your home. The CO gas might kill people and pets.
When purchasing new heating and cooking equipment, select products tested and labeled by a recognized testing laboratory.
Make sure all fuel-burning vented equipment is vented to the outside to avoid CO poisoning. Keep the venting for exhaust clear and unblocked.
If you need to warm a vehicle, remove it from the garage immediately after starting it. Never run a vehicle or other fueled engine or motor indoors, even if garage doors are open. Make sure the exhaust pipe of a running vehicle is not blocked with snow, ice or other materials. The CO gas might kill people and pets.
Make sure vents for the dryer, furnace, stove and fireplace are clear of snow and other debris.
Only use barbecue grills outside, away from all doors, windows, vents and other building openings. Some grills can produce CO gas. Never use grills inside the home or the garage, even if the doors are open.
Use portable generators outdoors in well-ventilated areas away from all doors, windows, vents and other building openings to prevent exhaust fumes from entering the home.
If Your CO Alarm Sounds
Stay calm - Most situations resulting in activation of a CO alarm are not life threatening.
Immediately move to a fresh air location (outdoors or by an open window or door).
Make sure everyone inside the home is accounted for.
Call 911 from a fresh air location (outdoors or by an open window). Remain at a fresh air location until police/fire personnel arrive to assist you.
How do I determine whether someone has CO poisoning?
Ask everyone in the house: “Do you feel ill? Do you have flu-like symptoms of headache, nausea, or dizziness?” If the answer to these questions by anyone in the house is “yes,” evacuate the house and have someone call 911. Failure to get out immediately may result in prolonged exposure, worsening effects from the CO.