Return to Sisters of Doom Articles
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
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
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
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:
- 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
Return to Sisters of Doom Articles