Protecting your loved ones is critical during the holidays. Carbon monoxide (CO) kills over 2,000 people every year in the U.S. and another 8,000 to 15,000 people are treated for non-fire-related CO poisoning annually, according US Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates. CO is produced when anything burns, especially when there isn’t a lot of oxygen present. Since CO interferes with your ability to breathe, it can kill you rather quickly. Colorless and odorless, it can also kill without warning. Properly installed CO detectors in your home can save your life and may also save you money on your homeowners insurance quotes.
The biggest culprit? Faulty or poorly vented furnaces, space heaters, water heaters, fireplaces, gas stoves and other fuel-burning appliances. Combine excess use of heating devices during winter with a home that’s sealed up tight against the cold and you have the perfect combination for CO poisoning. Some of the signs of that you have a CO problem include sooty streaks around fuel-burning devices, the lack of an updraft in a chimney, orange or yellow flames on gas stoves (flames should be blue), excessively rusty flue and vent pipes, and a lot of moisture building up around windows, wall and cold surfaces. If you have any of these symptoms, open the doors and windows and call a pro. It’s a good idea to have your home heating system checked every year by a professional heating contractor, anyway. Have you fireplace and chimney cleaned regularly by a pro, too.
Every winter, there’s at least one tragic story of a family dying because they used their charcoal barbecue or portable gas generator to heat a room. Do not be a headline. Both of these devices are designed for outdoor use, only, and only in a well ventilated area. Other dangerous practices that generate excessive CO are heating a home with a gas oven and being in a closed garage with a car engine running (like when you’re waiting for the car heater to warm up before you open the garage door). Bad ideas!
Because CO is colorless and odorless, the first sign of a problem may be a mild headache or a shortness of breath after very little exertion. Prolonged exposure leads to a worse headache, dizziness, fatigue and nausea. After that, you’ll be confused, cranky and uncoordinated. By then, you may be unable to call for help or escape to fresh air. You may have as little as 10 minutes from the first symptom to unconsciousness. Note that pets may suffer the symptoms first (think canary in a coal mine). If the symptoms are alleviated by going outdoors and getting fresh air, you have a CO problem. Get everyone out of the house, open the doors and windows and call 911 immediately. After the danger has passed and the source of the CO has been identified and removed, invest in CO alarms. Many homeowners insurance policies offer discounts on premiums.