Ask a Firefighter

Posted: Monday, December 08, 2003

Question: What is carbon monoxide and who is at risk?

Answer: Carbon monoxide (CO), known as the "silent killer," is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and nonirritating gas. For these reasons, it cannot be detected by us. Add into the equation the fact that it has the same density as air, meaning it neither rises nor falls. All of this makes it a very insidious poison.

Carbon monoxide results from the incomplete combustion of any material containing carbon paper, tobacco, wood, charcoal, gasoline, etc. On the other hand, when these fuels are burned completely with oxygen, little CO results, just carbon dioxide and water. CO is produced by common home appliances, such as gas or oil furnaces, gas refrigerators, gas clothes dryers, gas ranges, gas hot water heaters or space heaters, fireplaces, charcoal grills, wood burning stoves and, believe it or not, cigarette smoke. Fumes from automobiles and gas-powered lawn mowers also create CO and can enter the home through walls, windows or doorways.

All of these sources can contribute to a CO problem in the home. If a home is vented properly and is free from appliance malfunctions, air pressure fluctuations or airway blockages, carbon monoxide most likely will be safely vented to the outside. But in today's "energy-efficient" homes, this frequently is not the case. Tightly constructed, sealed homes can trap CO-polluted air in a home year-round. Furnace heat exchangers can crack, vents can become blocked, inadequate air supply from combustion appliances can cause conditions known as back-drafting or reverse stacking, which force contaminated air back into the home. Exhaust fans on range hoods, clothes dryers and bathroom fans also can pull combustible products into the home.

Who is at risk?

Everyone is at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Normally, oxygen inhaled into your lungs combines with the hemoglobin in your blood to form oxyhemoglobin. The hemoglobin to the body's cells transports the oxygen. However, when carbon monoxide is inhaled, the CO combines with hemoglobin in your blood instead of oxygen, thus depriving your body of the oxygen it needs to survive. The result is an increase heart rate as your heart tries to get more oxygen to your brain and other vital organs. In other words, as the CO level in your blood increases, the amount of oxygen transported to your body's cells decreases. It is this oxygen deprivation that makes carbon monoxide so deadly. It's been noted that CO bonds 200 to 250 times stronger to hemoglobin than oxygen.

The symptoms of long-term exposure to low concentrations of carbon monoxide will cause symptoms similar to the flu, such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, weakness, drowsiness, sleepiness, vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms also may include any of the following: burning eyes, redness of the skin, confusion and irritability, loss of muscle control, chest tightness and heart fluttering. As levels increase, vomiting, loss of consciousness, eventual brain damage, and ultimately death can result.

How can I protect my family from carbon monoxide poisoning?

To help reduce the risk of exposure to carbon monoxide, consumers should have a qualified technician regularly inspect and service potential problems with fuel-burning appliances annually. Gas burning equipment, which is out of adjustment, often has a flickering yellow flame as opposed to a steady blue flame. If you see this, call a qualified service person. When replacing heating appliances, purchase appliances designed to reduce damages from carbon monoxide.

In addition to having fuel-burning appliances inspected once a year, carbon monoxide detectors can be installed near sleeping areas, just outside rooms used to house fuel burning equipment, and on every level of the home. Choose a CO alarm that is Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) listed.

What should I do if my carbon monoxide alarm goes off?

Never ignore your alarm!

Evacuate the premises immediately. Call the local fire department and-or your natural gas or propane representative, asking them to determine the source of the carbon monoxide.

Make sure no one is experiencing any signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Seek medical attention if symptoms are present.

Do not re-enter your home until the emergency responders have located the problem or given the OK to re-enter. If a problem is found, have it corrected immediately. Keep your home well ventilated until the problem has been fixed. If you have any questions regarding carbon monoxide, contact your local fire department or ENSTAR for further information.

This column was provided by Gary Hale, fire marshal with Central Emergency Services. If you have a question for a law enforcement or emergency services agency, mail it to P.O. Box 3009, Kenai, AK 99611, e-mail the Clarion at, call 283-7551 or fax 283-3299.

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