Carbon Monoxide

What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon Monoxide is an odorless, colorless and toxic gas.  Because you cannot see, taste or smell the toxic fumes, CO can kill you before you are aware it is in your home.  

The Effects of Carbon Monoxide on the Human Body:
Through your lungs, carbon monoxide combines with the red cells in your blood and displaces the oxygen your body needs to survive. Carbon monoxide combines with red blood cells over 200 times more easily than oxygen. It also takes much longer for your body to eliminate carbon monoxide than to absorb it, with is one reason why exposure can be so dangerous.

If you are exposed to carbon monoxide, your blood loses its ability to absorb oxygen. The percentage of lost capacity is called your blood Carboxyhemoglobin level (COHb). The level of COHb in your body normally depends on the level of carbon monoxide in the air and the length of time that your are exposed.

The effects of CO exposure can vary greatly from person to person depending on age, overall health and the concentration and length of exposure. A COHb level of just 5% has an effect on normal, healthy adults. However, there is usually no awareness of symptoms until COHb levels rise above 10%. Infants, children, those with underlying heart disease, pregnant women and the pregnant mother’s fetus experience the adverse effects of carbon monoxide poisoning at lower levels.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide:
Carbon Monoxide is produced by the incomplete combustion of fuels like wood, oil, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, kerosene, coal and charcoal. Household appliances like your furnace, water heater, stove, space heaters, charcoal grill, and gas dryer can all be sources of carbon monoxide, especially if they have been improperly installed or are not in proper working condition. This can happen if there is not enough oxygen in your home environment for complete combustion, if an appliance has not been adequately maintained, or if appliance ventilation ducts and flues are blocked or leaking.

Automobile, lawnmower, snowmobile, snow blower and gas powered engines are sources of very high concentrations of carbon monoxide and great care should be taken to ensure that their exhaust streams never enter your home. 

The Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning:
The following symptoms are related to Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and should be discussed with ALL members of your household: 

  • Mild Exposure: Slight headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue (similar to flu-like symptoms)
  • Medium Exposure: Severe throbbing headache, drowsiness, disorientation, confusion, fast heart rate.
  • Extreme Exposure: Unconsciousness, convulsions, cardio-respiratory failure, death.

What Action Do I Take if My Carbon Monoxide Alarm Goes Off?
What you need to do depends on whether anyone is feeling ill or not. 

If no one is feeling ill:

  • Silence the alarm
  • Turn off all appliances and sources of combustion (i.e. furnace, fireplace, stove, etc.)
  • Ventilate the house with fresh air by opening doors and windows
  • Call a professional to investigate the source of the possible CO buildup

If illness is a factor:

  • Evacuate all occupants immediately
  • Call your local emergency number (911) and relay information to the dispatcher including the number of people feeling ill
  • DO NOT RE-ENTER the home without the approval of a fire department representative
  • Call a professional to repair the source of the CO

FACT SHEET