Jason Robie: Carbon monoxide awareness decreases risk of poisoning

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE winter in New Hampshire and honestly can’t think of a lovelier scene than a landscape blanketed in a fresh dusting of snow. But as we start the dreaded migration towards closed windows and doors and the lack of a natural flow of fresh air, our minds should be also on our personal safety and that of our families and pets.

As you are likely aware, the state of New Hampshire now “requires the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in rental units and in single and multi-family dwellings built or substantially rehabilitated after Jan. 1, 2010.”

So what exactly IS carbon monoxide  and where does it come from? With the chemical abbreviation CO, carbon monoxide is a deadly, colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. The incomplete burning of various fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane and natural gas produce it. Products and equipment powered by internal combustion engines such as portable generators, cars, lawn mowers and power washers also produce CO. When used in a well-ventilated area, these items pose no immediate threat, but when that exhaust is able to gather and increase in concentration, trouble is brewing.

In 2005 alone, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is aware of at least 94 “generator-related” CO poisoning deaths. Half of those were caused by power outages related to Katrina and other severe weather patterns. On average, there are around 170 deaths in the United States every year from CO produced by non-automotive consumer products. Water heaters, furnaces, space heaters and other fuel burning appliances are among the guilty culprits. Aside from those tragedies, the CDC estimates that several thousand hospital room visits annually are attributed to CO poisoning treatment.

Since CO is odorless and essentially undetectable to our senses, it is scarily possible that you could be exposed and not even know it. The initial symptoms are much like that of the flu (without the fever). Shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, headache and fatigue are all signs of low to moderate CO poisoning. As it progresses, the signs get more severe. Mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscle coordination and eventually loss of consciousness are the symptoms of this heightened level. The severity of these symptoms is related both to the CO level in the immediate area as well as the duration of exposure.

So, now that we’re all scared to death, how can we keep this nasty stuff at bay? The problems arise, as the seasons dictate, when the windows and doors are closed and there’s no place for the gas to escape. Keep an eye on any type of fuel-burning appliance.

“Stoves and ovens are scary enough when they are new and in good working order,” notes Badger Realty agent, Debi Davis. “If yours is older than you are, just make sure you have had it serviced and all the seals and elements are in good working order,” she continued. Never use portable fuel-burning camping equipment or cooking devices (including charcoal grills) inside the house or garage unless they are specifically designed for use in enclosed spaces.

The amount of CO we can handle depends a great deal on the health of each individual. The fastest and typically easiest remedy is to get outside to fresh air immediately. It is always a good idea to call the fire department from a neighbor’s home (or your cell) and get medical attention immediately. If the doctor has confirmed CO poisoning, you should then have a qualified service person check your appliances for proper operation or leaks. These appliances should not be used until a professional has ensured their proper function.

Today’s CO alarms are better built and are not as susceptible to nuisance alarms as older models. Their purpose is to sound an alarm before potentially life-threatening levels of CO are reached.

There has been some debate about where these alarms should be installed. All the reading I have done says you can plug them right into a wall outlet (typically 12-18 inches from the floor) or they can be installed high on the wall. It is OK to install them a good distance away from kitchens or fuel-burning appliances. Outside bedrooms and inside each sleeping area of the home are two of the more common spots to place them. Keep an eye on the replacement age of the alarm. The “testing” that you do is only verifying that the circuitry is working, not the accuracy of the sensor.

As the law now states, new homes or significantly remodeled homes are required to install CO alarms. For the rest of us, it just makes good sense. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association even requires CO alarms in motor homes and in towable RVs. It makes good sense for the safety of your family, and if your home is on the market, it is one less thing the new owners will have to think about when they are settling in.