what causes carbon monoxide poisoning

What Causes Carbon Monoxide Poisoning? Read This For Your Safety!

Carbon monoxide is dubbed as a ‘silent killer’. It’s a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas, but a concentration of 10% is more than enough to kill a person. Unfortunately, this gas can form inside your home without your knowledge. This is why you should know what causes carbon monoxide poisoning and what you can do to prevent it.

Back in 2017, Rodney Todd Sr. and his seven children were found dead after succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning. The culprit? A generator left running inside the house. This tragedy rocked Somerset County, Maryland, and has opened discussions about the risks of carbon monoxide.

In this post, my goal is to educate fellow homeowners about the potential risks that we need to watch out for in our houses.

What causes carbon monoxide poisoning?

Photo Credits: Corgi HomePlan via Flickr

Carbon monoxide (CO) forms when fuel undergoes incomplete combustion. Fuel like gas, charcoal, propane, and wood can produce carbon monoxide.

Usually, there are very small amounts of carbon monoxide in the earth’s atmosphere. Nevertheless, the concentration is very low and will not cause harm to anyone. It’s the enclosed space that will allow carbon monoxide to accumulate if you’re not careful.

When inhaled, carbon monoxide will deprive your body of oxygen. And when there’s not enough oxygen supply, your tissues will die. In a short period, you’ll suffer from organ failure and even death.

The effect on the human body will depend on the CO concentration where you got exposed. Around 10% of CO concentration will already cause seizures, convulsions, and severe symptoms.

However, if the concentration rises to 30% or more, the chances of surviving are extremely low. Individuals who have survived this kind of carbon monoxide poisoning ended up in a vegetative state.

So what causes carbon monoxide poisoning at home? You’ll be surprised that the common items in your house can become lethal if not used properly. The following are some of them:

  • Clothes dryer
  • Grill (except electric types)
  • Wood and gas stoves
  • Water heater
  • Gas and wood-burning fireplaces
  • Chemical heaters
  • Motor vehicles
  • Furnaces

But before you panic, let me clarify something. Just because you have these items at home doesn’t mean you’re going to experience carbon monoxide poisoning. The important part here is to use the appliances properly and get it checked by a professional technician periodically.

For example, a clothes dryer will produce carbon monoxide if it’s not vented properly. Also, the vents may be blocked by a bird’s nest and other outdoor structures. The fumes will then backflow and accumulate inside the house.

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Remember that you shouldn’t wait for carbon monoxide poisoning to happen before you do something. The first step in preventing this tragedy is by getting informed. If you notice these symptoms at home, there’s a chance that there are high levels of CO in the air:

  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Dull headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Blurred vision
  • Sudden sleepiness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting

However, these symptoms are only observable if the person is awake. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a stealthy killer, especially if the person is asleep or intoxicated. This is why prevention is very important because you’ll never know when carbon monoxide is already in the works.

In this video, Dr. Lindell Weaver tells us more about the symptoms of CO poisoning and its long-term effects:

Who are at a high risk of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide exposure is dangerous for everyone. However, there are some who are more vulnerable to poisoning. The following individuals should be more careful:

  • Children. Kids have a higher respiratory rate than adults, which means they take more breaths. This speeds up potential poisoning if there’s a high CO concentration in the air.
  • Pregnant women. Unborn babies are at high risk of carbon monoxide poisoning because fetal cells absorb a lot of CO when exposed to it.
  • Elderly. Older people are weak and has compromised immune system. In many cases, exposure to CO will cause brain damage to older people.
  • People with heart disease. Individuals with chronic heart disease are susceptible to CO poisoning. Also, persons with anemia and breathing issues are prone to severe complications.

How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning at home?

Since carbon monoxide is odorless, you have to practice prevention all the time. The following are some of the important steps to take.

✔️Install a carbon monoxide detector

what causes carbon monoxide poisoning

The only way to detect the presence of carbon monoxide in your home is if you have a carbon monoxide detector. This is usually built within modern smoke alarms. It will set off once the device detects risky levels of CO inside your home. This is a lifesaver, that’s why I always encourage homeowners to invest in a reliable option.

Take note that carbon monoxide detectors are battery-powered. It’s important to check and calibrate it at least twice a year. Do this even if brands market their detectors with a 10-year lifespan. Remember that it’s just the lifespan, the upkeep throughout those years is a different story. I also recommend changing your detectors every five years.

As for the placement, carbon monoxide detectors are best installed on walls around five feet from the ground. You can also place it on the ceiling, but not near fire-producing appliances.

Lastly, you should install multiple detectors all over your house. One for each room is the best move.

✔️Keep your home well-ventilated

what causes carbon monoxide poisoning

It’s also important to keep your house well-ventilated. From time to time, open your windows and let the fresh air in. This will help dissipate carbon monoxide while saving up on energy costs.

If you’re worried about insects coming in, you can put up a net or mesh cover. This will ventilate your home without insects or stray animals entering.

You can also use electric fans to improve their airflow in your house. Just make sure that you point the fans away from people as it might funnel concentrated amounts of CO. For the best results, open a window to circulate the air.

Most of all, never smoke inside your house. Aside from increasing carbon monoxide poisoning, it will leave soot, which will make your walls and furniture darker. It’s also dangerous for the health of your family.

✔️Never run gas-powered devices indoors

If you’re going to use a generator, place it at least 20 feet away from your home. Whether it’s gas or propane-powered, all portable generators will emit toxic fumes. These fumes contain carbon monoxide that will lead to poisoning if contained in a small area.

Basically, you should keep all your fuel-burning appliances properly vented. This is the reason why your kitchen has an exhaust hood that sucks all the fumes and odors during cooking.

One thing that I do is run the exhaust hood even when I’m not cooking. I do this when there’s a weird smell at home. It helps remove the nasty odor, and it will also eliminate carbon monoxide if there’s any present in the air. 

✔️Get your HVAC system checked yearly

Regular checks of your HVAC system are very important to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Even if your AC or heater seems to be working fine, you’ll never know when it’s going to produce the deadly gas.

The air conditioning unit itself won’t produce CO. What you have to keep an eye on is your heating equipment.

Many heaters and furnaces in U.S. households still use natural gas or oil to function. These are practical options for areas that always experience power outages. However, it’s also a high risk when it comes to carbon monoxide production.

With this, it’s best to establish contact with our local HVAC contractor. It should include regular checks to prevent the occurrence of toxic fumes. These long-term contracts will actually save you more money since contractors provide discounts for repeat customers.

✔️Don’t use portable chemical heaters indoors

It’s not advisable to use chemical heaters indoors because it’s guaranteed to emit toxic fumes. Without ventilation, your cozy home will become a place of tragedy. If you want to stay warm, consider using electric space heaters instead.

✔️Be careful in patching up vent pipes

Here’s one innocent mistake that could lead to CO poisoning: patching vent pipes with chewing gum or tape. These patches will leak and cause carbon monoxide buildup inside your home. And before you know, you’re dizzy and experiencing the onset of poisoning.

If your vent pipes have holes or leaks, hire professional repair instead. It costs money, but it’s much better than suffering from the consequences of CO poisoning. The small fee will literally save your life.

✔️Maintain your fireplace properly

Lastly, maintain your fireplace properly. Fireplaces are one of the largest parts of your home that burns fuel. Always open your dampers when using your fireplace to allow the fumes to exit your house.

Also, I recommend hiring a chimney sweep annually to inspect your chimney. Professional cleaning is also important to remove the soot and toxic chemicals that accumulated on it.

✔️Be smart with your appliance choices

When shopping for new appliances, always look for a testing seal. The Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) is just one of the national agencies that test appliance safety. This ensures that the unit is safe for indoor use given proper ventilation.

It’s also important to read the manual that comes with the appliance. This way, you’ll know how to use it properly and what risk entails such usage.

Also, if you’re cooking indoors, never use camp stoves or grills. These propane-powered appliances produce fumes that will only be dissipated outdoors.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How will I know if there’s carbon monoxide in my house?

A: Carbon monoxide is odorless, but in many cases, it’s accompanied by the soot coming from your appliance. If you smell any stale, burning, stuffy, or any changes in the air, you should open your windows to let fresh air in. The best way to know if your house has CO is by installing a carbon monoxide detector and alarm.

Q: How long does carbon monoxide stay in the house?

A: The answer to this depends on the ventilation of the house. If there’s no air movement, the gas will be stuck inside your home for as long as you can imagine. In terms of removing the gas from your body, the half-life of CO is around 5 hours. Within this period, you should receive immediate medical attention.

Q: How long does it take to experience carbon monoxide poisoning?

A: Exposure to high carbon monoxide poisoning in less than five minutes is enough to cause poisoning. The higher the concentration is, the faster your body will feel the symptoms. However, it also means that you’re likely to suffer from irreversible damage.

Q: Can you recover from carbon monoxide poisoning?

A: If your exposure is mild, you’re likely to come out of the poisoning alive and well. Once you experience the symptoms of poisoning, you should move to a ventilated area to stop the exposure. You should also seek immediate medical care to limit the potential effect of the poisoning on your body.

Q: Can dogs smell carbon monoxide?

A: Unfortunately, no, dogs can’t sniff carbon monoxide in the air. If they do, there would’ve been carbon monoxide detecting dogs of some sort. Canines are as susceptible as we are when it comes to carbon monoxide poisoning. Once you exhibited CO poisoning symptoms, you should also lead your dog to a ventilated area.

Q: Should I go to the ER for CO poisoning?

A: If you’re experiencing CO poisoning symptoms, leave your house and go to the hospital. This way, you’ll be treated properly to limit the effects of the poisoning. And even if it’s not carbon monoxide poisoning, the symptoms may point to other health problems that require medical care.

Final words

Knowing what causes carbon monoxide poisoning is the first step in preventing it from happening. It’s important to discuss this risk with your family, so you can keep your home safe from the deadly gas. Regular HVAC inspections and indoor air checks are also important to keep your home safe and sound.

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