Introduction to Carbon Monoxide

A colorless, odorless gas, carbon monoxide is produced by incomplete combustion of fuels. Because it interferes with the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to the body, very high levels of carbon monoxide can cause death. It is estimated that 1,000 people each year die of carbon monoxide poisoning, while thousands of other suffer non-fatal poisoning.

How Do People Come in Contact with Carbon Monoxide?

When carbon-containing fuels—such as coal, wood, charcoal, natural gas, and fuel oil—are incompletely burned, carbon monoxide is emitted. The carbon monoxide enters the air from the combustion source that may not be properly installed or maintained or not adequately ventilated, such as:

  • unvented heaters (kerosene or gas space heaters)
  • furnaces
  • woodstoves
  • gas stoves
  • fireplaces
  • gas water heaters
  • automobile exhaust from attached garages
  • tobacco smoke
  • gasoline-powered equipment, such as emergency generators

Some control is behavioral, such as choosing not to smoke or not to idle an automobile or lawn mower in an attached garage, or being sure to open flues when the fireplace is in use. Other important choices include:

  • using the proper fuel in kerosene space heaters
  • not using ovens or gas ranges for home heating
  • not burning charcoal inside a home or other closed living space (e.g., cabin, recreational vehicle, or camper)
  • not using an unvented gas heater in an enclosed space

Some may involve replacing certain types of equipment (e.g., using a vented space heater instead of an unvented one). Others may involve hiring professionals to, for example, check the central heating system.

Health and Carbon Monoxide

Low concentrations of carbon monoxide lead to feelings of fatigue, impaired vision and coordination, headaches and dizziness, confusion and nausea, as well as flu-like symptoms that may also resemble food poisoning. People with heart or respiratory illnesses, elderly people, infants, and fetuses, are all at higher risk than the rest of the healthy population.

fireman If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, immediate fresh air is needed, and all devices that use combustion should be turned off. Open the doors and windows and leave the building, heading for the emergency room to be checked by health care professionals.

Carbon Monoxide Testing

Carbon monoxide detectors, sold at home and hardware stores, and placed on each floor of your home near sleeping areas, and maintained like smoke detectors (replace batteries twice a year). They are an excellent choice for home safety, but only as a back-up to proper operation of devices that burn fuel. Some detectors give a digital readout of the carbon monoxide level, and all sound an alarm when levels become dangerous. As of early 2007, specific standards for dangerous levels of carbon monoxide indoors have not been released-check for information on developments at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) site.

Before purchasing carbon monoxide detectors, check the features, including the warranty, ease of self-test, and that it meets Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) standards. It is recommended that they not be placed within 15 feet of heating or cooking devices, nor near the bathroom (because of the humidity). Be sure you can distinguish the sound of your carbon monoxide detectors from your smoke alarms.

Written by Mary Elizabeth

Related Home Institute Articles

  • Carbon Monoxide Testing
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Safety
  • Radon Testing
  • Introduction to Radon