In 2015, two British children were enjoying a family holiday on the picturesque island of Corfu. One night they went to bed but never woke. Their cause of death was due to the emission of carbon monoxide produced by a boiler without suitable ventilation. The story is one of many devastating incidents of people that have fallen victim to the “silent killer”, ie. carbon monoxide. In this comprehensive guide, we will clearly outline what carbon monoxide is, what are the symptoms and effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, and most importantly, what is required to keep you and your family safe and protected from this insidious “silent killer”.
What exactly is CO?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odourless, colourless gas that is slightly less dense than air. When people are exposed to CO gas, carbon monoxide molecules displace oxygen in one’s bodies, which leads to poisoning. As it cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, dangerous concentrations of the gas can build up indoors and go undetected.
Where does CO come from?
CO can be found in fumes that are produced when fuel is burned, particularly in trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas stoves, or furnaces. In an indoor environment, the gas can build up to a level where it is poisonous to humans and animals who inhale it.
The main sources of carbon monoxide poisoning are commonly known to come from:
- 42% Engine-Driven Tools
- 34% Heating Systems
- 19% Consumer Products
- 7% Multiple Products
Who are those at risk from CO poisoning?
Everyone is at risk from carbon monoxide poisoning and this includes all humans and also pets. Those most vulnerable to CO poisoning are:
- People who are asthmatic or have bronchial diseases that give rise to breathing problems
- Those who are anaemic (have a low count of red blood cells)
- Those with chronic heart disease
A recent report emerging from the US indicates that more than 400 Americans die from CO poisoning each year, more than 20,000 require a visit to the doctor or emergency room, and more than 4,000 are hospitalised.
What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning include:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Upset stomach
- Impaired vision
- Chest pain
- Confusion and disorientation
Carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be mistaken for other illnesses as it shares many common flu-like symptoms. For those who have consumed a few alcoholic drinks or are sound asleep, they can potentially die from the effects of the gas without noticing any symptoms.
Preventative steps to avoid CO poisoning
While carbon monoxide poisoning poses a serious risk, it is fortunately preventable. Follow these tips when indoors in your home or when you are in your vehicle to prevent the risks of carbon monoxide.
- Make sure your heating system or coal, gas, oil burning appliances are serviced annually.
- Ensure all gas appliances are properly vented and ensure the joints or pipes are fitted by qualified engineers.
- Never block up a vent or flue or patch vent pipes with tape as this can cause CO to build up.
- Don’t burn charcoal indoors.
- If you are using a generator indoors ensure it’s within 20 feet from a vent or window or door.
- If you live in an old house with a chimney, ensure it is annually cleaned.
- Only buy, install and use industry approved gas appliances that meet Australian industry standards.
- Avoid heating your home with a gas stove. Gas stoves produce carbon monoxide and can fill your home with this dangerous gas.
- Most importantly, install a carbon monoxide detector, which is an affordable, easy to install device to save your life and the lives of your loved ones.
- Get the exhaust system of your vehicle checked annually to ensure there are no leaks.
- Avoid running your car engine in the garage. If you want to warm up your vehicle in the winter, drive it out of the garage first. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of vehicle exhaust and can quickly build up in a closed garage.
- When driving vehicles with a tailgate, regularly open both the vehicle windows and vents and open the tailgate to keep air circulating.
When Outdoor Camping
- Practise safe cooking while camping. Avoid using a charcoal grill, hibachi, or camping stove inside a tent or camper. This also prevents the chances of a fire and also protects from any possible concentration of CO build up.
Do I need a carbon monoxide detector or alarm?
Even if one adheres to the list above, carbon monoxide has many ways of being emitted and cannot be detected by human senses. A carbon monoxide detector is an important device that is the best way to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning by making residents aware of concentration levels when they exceed a tolerable amount. In the same way smoke alarms are there to prevent fire and give peace of mind, a carbon monoxide alarm will detect this poisonous gas before it starts to lead to problematic symptoms and potentially death.
Where should a CO alarm be installed in your home?
If you are buying a single carbon monoxide alarm, then it should be positioned next to the most vulnerable area, which would likely be close to where people are sleeping. At minimum, it is recommended that a CO alarm be installed near the bedrooms and another be positioned in the kitchen where appliances that can emit carbon monoxide such as stoves or boilers are located. The most ideal setup providing the highest level of protection is to install a carbon monoxide detector on every level of your home and near each bedroom and kitchen area or wherever there are fuel-burning appliances, such as a furnace, water heater, gas stove, cooktop, or grill.
How do I select the most suitable CO alarm for me?
- Check the regulations in your state. Each state in Australia may have specific requirements regarding carbon monoxide alarms, including what type to use and their placement, so it is good to be aware of them before you make a purchase.
- Consider the power source. Hardwired carbon monoxide detectors connect into your home’s wiring, requiring professional installation. Battery-only detectors are the simplest to install and remain working even in the event of a power failure. Some carbon monoxide detector and alarm models use removable batteries that require replacement usually on an annual basis, while others use sealed lithium batteries that last for the life of the unit. Plug-in detectors are also available but may not always be ideal as electric outlets are typically located low on the wall, whereas the ideal placement for a detector is higher upon the wall or on or near the ceiling.
- Still having doubts? It is always a good idea to talk through your requirements with a home alarm specialist who can advise you on the best carbon monoxide alarm for your needs.
What steps should I take if my CO alarm goes off?
Providing no-one is showing signs of symptoms, the steps recommended to take when a carbon monoxide alarm sounds are as follows:
- Open all windows and doors. This will help to clear any buildup of hazardous CO gas.
- Turn off all fuel-burning appliances and leave the house regardless of whether you feel ill or not.
- Reset your carbon monoxide alarm. If it does not sound again get the alarm checked out by an expert, but if it does sound a second time, evacuate the property.
- Don’t switch on lights, smoke, or light a match while in the property.
- Seek medical advice and see your local doctor just to be safe, even if you don’t show symptoms.
- Arrange to have your appliances checked and serviced.
If you or a member of your household does have symptoms, ensure the person gets fresh air and call the emergency services or get them to a hospital.
Testing Your Carbon Monoxide Detector
Every carbon monoxide detector is different, and you should always acquaint yourself with how to test your unit. Generally, for most units, this can be achieved by pressing and holding the Test Button on the front of the alarm until the alarm sounds. Ensure to hold the button down long enough until it responds, usually in the form of beeping, which will indicate that it is in working order.
It is advised that you test your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms at least once a month, or even more optimally, once a week. CO alarms can last up to ten years, but we suggest beginning to look to replace older units at the five-to-seven-year mark. If you’ve happened to purchase an older home and are unsure of the age of your carbon monoxide alarms, it is recommended that you replace them entirely.
Need a new reliable Carbon Monoxide Alarm?
If you require a reliable and durable carbon monoxide alarm, PSA’s Lifesaver LIFCO9D Carbon Monoxide Alarm protects against the dangers of CO poisoning by monitoring CO levels and ensuring you and your family are always safe from this “silent killer”. It can be installed on a wall or as a tabletop unit for added convenience, and comes with a 10-year sensor life.