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Carbon Monoxide is SILENT... it's DEADLY...
and DOESN'T STINK...

She had a dull headache all evening...

Aand the fact that the kids were more ornery than usual didn't help at all.  She took a few sinus pills and decided she would go to bed early.  Her husband was playing chess with their son, while their daughter played video games in her room. The last few weeks had been one nightmare after another.  When they had purchased the bed-and-breakfast two years earlier, they had no idea what a handful it was going to be.  The latest money-pit project was the relining of the four chimneys serving three beautifully rustic fireplaces and the relatively new oil furnace.  Money wasn't tight... her husband had just retired with a really sweet pension from a major chemical company, and she had a mad-money job in the cafeteria of the local elementary school.

Their real dream was to make this bed-and-breakfast work.   And they had agreed that the restoration of the chimneys was essential, albeit expensive... four gently rolling fires would add just the right touch to the ambiance of their weekend getaway for urban escapees.  The contractors, whom she was convinced were the second cousins of Larry, Darryl, and his other brother Darryl, finished up earlier in the day, only two weeks behind schedule.  Thank God for small miracles.   She closed her eyes and was asleep in moments.

Why she awoke we will never know.  She probably shouldn't have.  Her head was banging with a four-alarm migraine.  She looked over at her husband, breathing very lightly into his pillow.  Forcing herself out of bed, she realized just how lethargic she felt.  Her legs felt leaden as she walked downstairs to the kitchen to find the bottle of pills she thought she had left on the counter.  When she reached the kitchen proper, she flipped on the overhead light.  She noticed a thin fog filling the air.   Her pain was replaced with motherly instinct, and she knew danger shared the room.

She ran upstairs to awaken her husband who, though somewhat groggy, helped to get the children outside to the soon to be heated Suburban in the driveway.  The children bundled, husband and wife returned to the house to open the windows and investigate further.  The fresh air was invigoratingly chilled by the North wind, but not so cold as to be uncomfortable.

She turned to the basement stairs and looked down, at the same time grabbing the flashlight that always sat on a shelf next to the stairs.  The basement was dark.. no fire for sure... but remembering basic Homeowner 101, she flipped off the furnace emergency switch.  Illuminated by the twin C-cell beam, she walked down the stairs, husband close behind.  There was a misty appearance to the air, and the smell of warm, burnt oil.

While her husband stood numb at the last step, she turned and approached the furnace located in a darker corner of the basement.  The chain of an overhead light struck her cheek and she yanked it, bathing the furnace in harsh light.  A harsher, deadly reality loomed ahead.  Larry or Darryl had neglected to reattach the furnace exhaust pipe in their eager rush to meet their comrades at the local pub.  It lay on the dirt floor, surrounded by an assortment of beer cans and dead mice, while the furnace chamber gaped open feeding poisonous carbon monoxide into their home.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (henceforth CO... its shortcut chemical symbol) is a colorless, odorless gas.  It is produced as a byproduct of the combustion of carbon-based or fossil fuels... natural gas, gasoline, coal, and fuel oils.  The amount of carbon monoxide formed is related to both the speed of the combustion and the completeness of the combustion.    Automobiles, for example, create huge amounts of CO due to the internal combustion engine's fast, inefficient burning of gasoline.  Burning the same fuel in the open air forms very small amounts.

CO is also a fuel in and of itself... in fact up to half of the natural gas used as fuel to feed your stove, furnace or hot water heater may be carbon monoxide!  Even years ago, the danger of CO was well known, and nasty smelling sulfur compounds were added to fuel gas to provide its consistent, familiar and unmistakable odor!

You may say... "Wait a minute... I can smell the fumes from my car and the odor from my furnace!  So carbon monoxide can't sneak up on me!!"  WRONG.   You are smelling other combustion byproducts, not CO.  Tie that to the fact that carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air, so it will slowly but surely rise through your house from the basement furnace, the living room coal stove, or the unvented space heater. And perhaps leave the heavier, more recognizable odors behind!

Carbon monoxide and death... joined at the hip!

According to a 1997 University of Birmingham (UK) study of carbon monoxide poisoning from 1988 to 1994, "carbon monoxide poisoning is a depressingly successful way of taking one's life."  They went on to say that "this is different to most other commonly used suicidal poisoning methods, where attempts outnumber successes."   Closer to home, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, whose adventures in euthanasia have been controversial to say the least, chose inhalation of carbon monoxide as the most frequent method of suicide for his clients.

Why does CO have such a cozy relationship with the Grim Reaper?  It's because the human body is dumb!  Specifically, the hemoglobin... that part of our blood that carries oxygen from our lungs to the most remote parts of our bodies.  Our hemoglobin cannot detect the difference between CO and oxygen, so when you inhale CO, it is welcomed into our bodies like an old friend.  With horns...

But that is not the worst of it!  CO, unlike oxygen, is persistent... once it attaches to the hemoglobin, it likes to stay put.  Maybe it just likes the free ride and the sightseeing.  While it is enjoying a long ride through our blood supply... over and over... much of the oxygen that is necessary for our life processes is held at customs.  The bottom line is that with enough exposure to CO gas, living things suffocate.

Suffocate!  And the greatest risk, as would be expected,  is for the weakest of us... pregnant women and their pouchlings, the elderly, the immune deficient, heart and lung disease patients, and infants.  They will feel the effects of CO levels that would not faze a healthy adult.

Death takes a holiday...

CO exposure does not necessarily mean death.  In fact, the non-deadly symptoms of exposure may help you to determine whether your home is sick.  Possible symptoms of low and mid-level exposure are:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Cold or flu-like symptoms

If you have a preexisting condition such as a circulatory or lung disease such as asthma or emphysema, your symptoms may be exacerbated by even very low CO exposure!

After writing this list, I thought... hmmm, I feel at least ONE of these symptoms every day... especially confusion!  So knowing them is not enough... it is too easy to mistake them for other diseases... or just being overstressed!  That's why the more knowledge you have and the more safeguards you take in your home, the better your chance of avoiding potential tragedy!

Two other sources of CO poisoning... idling automobiles and paint removers!

Never allow your car to idle in the garage...

Especially an attached garage!  The levels of CO in the garage can rise quickly to dangerous levels even if the garage door is open and can easily enter your home!  Sitting in an idling car can also be risky business!  A slight exhaust leak under the car, even though it might not make enough noise for you to head to the muffler shop, can allow CO to enter the passenger compartment.  If the driver or passengers become sleepy or actually fall asleep due to the gas, they are in mortal danger!

Just in case you didn't notice, remember what the parents did in the story at the beginning of this article?  That's right... they moved their children from the danger of the house to the danger of an idling car!

Most home repair aficionados have used a chemical paint remover at some time.

And even if you didn't read the warnings at the time, you knew that this stuff is a heavy duty chemical and to be respected.  But aside from the paint-and-skin removal properties of these products, there is a hidden danger in some of them.  The most aggressive paint removers have as their active ingredient  methylene chloride.  One of the nasty qualities of this chemical when inhaled is that our dumb bodies convert it into CO... with the same life threatening effects as inhaled CO.

You must read and follow the label warnings when using these products! Lots of fresh air is important. Where ventilation is not as easy to arrange, you must use a special face mask, called a respirator, that can filter out the fumes.  You cannot use a simple dust mask.  It  provides no protection from methylene chloride fumes.

Protect your home and family...

It requires very little skill to be a hero... you just have to care enough to get off your duff and do something!

1) Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home.

This is the easiest way to increase your safety with the least effort.  There are a few different types.  Some are battery-operated and may be installed anywhere.  Others are plugged into wall outlets or hard-wired into your homes electrical supply.  Since warm CO rises, locating a detector in an electrical outlet near the floor is not necessarily the ideal location.

The reason companies have made plug-in detectors is apparent.   The ease of installation has made this technology available to anyone who can plug in a lamp!  Having worked for many elderly and less-than-handy folks, I have seen many CO detectors in kitchens and hallways... these folks need the protection, but don't have the ability to climb ladders or install wiring.

How many detectors should you have?  It depends on who you ask. First Alert, a major manufacturer of CO detectors, suggests that a CO detector should be located on every level of your home, with additional detectors near each fuel-burning appliance. I agree that this would provide the most protection, but it could be quite a budgetary strain on many families... though very comforting!

I believe it is better to have a little protection than none at all!  First Alert concurs.  If you can afford to have only one detector, it should be located in the hall near your sleeping areas.  Remember that most CO deaths occur while the victims sleep.

2 ) Maintain all your fuel burning appliances on a regular basis...

You must have all fuel burning appliances, their vents and chimneys checked annually at the least!  Any fuel burning appliance that is misbehaving should be checked IMMEDIATELY.  Unusual odors, strange noises, evidence of soot either around the units or in your home, and partial loss of heat or hot water are all possible indicators of inefficient burning and excessive CO production.  Be sure you or your service person look for loose chimney and gas vent connections and missing or loose panels on all vented appliances, such as furnaces and water heaters.

Don't forget good wood stove etiquette... keep chimneys clean of soot and creosote, and keep a window partially open whenever burning wood, especially if your home is very air tight! This will increase the efficiency of the stove and replace the oxygen used by the burning wood.

Wood and coal burners... get to know your stove! Learn how to build the most efficient fires. Open the door for fueling as infrequently as possible. If downdrafts caused by wind cause your stove to belch CO-laden smoke into your home, you may not have to live with it! Get a professional opinion on either making modifications to your chimney (such as increasing the height or installing a reducing liner inside it), cutting down trees near to the house, or installing an anti-downdraft device on the chimney top.

3)  Do not purchase or use unvented heaters of any type unless the need is urgent and substitute methods are impossible. 

Oh, this is going to get some people mad as hatters, but hear me out.  Better yet, let me show you a letter and my response on this very subject.  I tried to be fair on the issue, while expressing  my honest concerns regarding  this technology.

Dear NH,

My question is do you know anything on vent-free fireplaces. My husband and I are looking into adding a fireplace to our home. The house is old and there is not a lot of space. Vent-free looks like the way to go for the cost and the heat that they produce. I have heard good and bad. Do you have any opinions on this subject.

JR from Princeton, IL

Dear JR,

A good source of basic information on ventless gas heaters is the Vent-Free Gas Products Alliance.

The levels of the primary pollutants... carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide... which are released by an AGA (American Gas Association) approved vent-less heater are well below Federal guidelines (ANSI Z21.11.2). For additional safety, they also have a special sensor that shuts them off if the oxygen level in the room drops below a certain level... well above the level considered dangerous. This is critical in units used in or near sleeping areas. Another byproduct of the burning of natural gas, water vapor, is a blessing in most cases, since in winter the relative humidity in the average home drops below healthy levels.

I have some reservations about them that I should "vent". Fact:   You are introducing potentially toxic substances into the air of your home. Though the ventless heater alone may not release high levels of any pollutant, combine that with other potential sources... wood or coal stoves;  natural gas or propane ovens, stove, or clothes dryers; oil or gas fired hot water heaters or furnaces... and the decreased ventilation in our homes during the winter months, and you can see the cumulative negative effect on inside air quality.

Another factor that is not immediately obvious to the shopper but important is the limitation on total BTU or heat output. They are limited to 40000 BTU output maximum, with a 10000 BTU maximum in a bedroom, and 6000 BTU in a bathroom. The limitations are in part based of the expected release of emissions... to control emissions you must control the thermal output. Do these limitations meet your heating needs?

In recent years, there has also been the recognition of the hypersensitivity of some folks to various chemicals. Whether you have recognized chemical sensitivities or suspect you may, exposure to these additional gases must also be a consideration in the purchase of a vent-free product.

Ventless heaters serve the needs of many people who have no other reasonable and cost-effective alternative for supplemental heat. The key is to evaluate these products based on your needs, your resources, and your health. Then you will be able to make the right choice.

Good luck,

NH

4)  Do not operate propane stoves, charcoal grills or any gasoline motor inside your home or garage.  MOST IMPORTANTLY, DO NOT IDLE YOUR CAR IN THE GARAGE... even with the door open!

No explanation needed, right? No brainer, right? You would never do that, would you? Right!

5) Know and remember the symptoms of CO poisoning! AND ACT ON YOUR SUSPICIONS IMMEDIATELY!

Do not hesitate to act if you think that there is a gas leak or CO contamination in your home  Being wrong is better than being dead!  Call the gas company if you have suspicions of a leak.  They can bring testing equipment to your home.

If you feel the vague symptoms of CO poisoning and choose to visit your doctor TELL HIM ABOUT YOUR SUSPICIONS!  CO poisoning is often misdiagnosed by health care professionals so you must be your own best advocate and speak up!

Okay, it's up to you... run or punt?

Everyone is not going to die from carbon monoxide exposure.  Just as everyone is not going to get hit by lightning, or flood, or earthquake.  But there is little you can do to protect yourself from Mother Nature's fits of rage... and lots you can do to protect yourself from CO.

There is a saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  You now have more than a little knowledge.  Not using it could be a dangerous thing, too.

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