Carbon monoxide is silent, invisible, and it can be deadly.
“If we get called to a house and everybody in the house is sick, there's usually something more than an acute medical issue,” said Craig Etherton, a fire inspector with the Coeur d'Alene Fire Department.
Etherton says high levels of carbon monoxide can cause confusion and disorientation. It can overcome people, causing death after just a few hours.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. It can be produced by any fuel-burning appliance, including generators, furnaces, stoves and gas ranges. CO is also produced by burning charcoal and wood, as well as by idling a car in the garage. When CO accumulates, it can cause illness or death.
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, chest pain and confusion. But relying on recognizing these symptoms in time can be a deadly mistake. People who are asleep may die from CO poisoning before having symptoms—which is why carbon monoxide alarms are crucial, especially outside bedrooms.
“Anybody who heats their home with a fuel device should have CO detectors on each level of their house and outside of sleeping rooms,” Etherton said.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that approximately 50,000 people visit the emergency room each year due to accidental CO poisoning—and at least 430 people die. While most poisonings occur in winter, when indoor heating sources are most frequently used, CO poisoning can happen at any time of year.
It's most common during power outages, Etherton says. When the power goes out, people fire up generators to keep refrigerators running or for indoor heat. But without proper ventilation, they risk filling their home with carbon monoxide.
“We've seen people try to pull their barbecues inside their kitchens during power outages to try to cook,” Etherton said. “That's pretty bad news.”
Generators should never be used inside the home, even if doors and windows are open. Instead, use generators outside, more than 20 feet away from the home. Heating systems, water heaters and any other gas, oil, wood or coal-burning appliances should be serviced by a qualified technician every year.
Prevention is what saves lives, said Tony Marmon, owner of Trademark Mechanical Heating & Air Conditioning in Hayden.
“At Trademark Mechanical, we are committed to educating our customers and our community about the importance of installing a carbon monoxide alarms, as well as properly maintaining fuel-burning equipment,” Marmon said.
Trademark Mechanical technicians test for carbon monoxide when inspecting or servicing equipment. They make a point of educating their customers about the importance of installing a carbon monoxide alarm, as well properly maintaining fuel-burning equipment. The business considers it their responsibility to the community they serve.
“Annual inspections of your fuel-based heating system, like your furnace, boiler, gas stove or water heater, is one way to help protect your family. Installing a carbon monoxide detector in your home is another,” Marmon said. “But even if you do not have a fuel-based heating system, we still recommend investing in carbon monoxide alarms for your home. Carbon monoxide from a running car or a wood stove can lead to poisoning.”
Like smoke detectors, carbon monoxide alarms should be tested monthly and have their batteries changed twice a year. An easy way to remember this is to change and test the batteries in your carbon monoxide detectors when setting the clocks back for daylight saving time. The lifespan of carbon monoxide alarms is not infinite, and alarms should be replaced entirely according to the manufacturer's recommendations.
Anyone who suspects carbon monoxide poisoning should get to fresh air immediately and call 911 from a safe place. Remaining in the home could lead to loss of consciousness and death.
“Even one death from carbon monoxide poisoning is too many,” Marmon said. “We need to protect our families, and it is as simple as installing carbon monoxide alarms.”