A Warning NOT To Ignore - A Carbon Monoxide Alarm

A spacefill model of a carbon monoxide molecule.
My father will cringe as I write this, but when a warning indicator lights up the dash of my van, I don't always make a bee-line to the shop to get it fixed.  Of course, it depends on which light and if it's blinking.  I've got things to do, places to be and kids to shuttle, and if the van sounds and drives fine, I figure I've got a few miles leeway, right?  However, there are warnings that you don't ignore.  On our way to Target this week, the van was difficult to start, but it was very cold... unusually cold.  It ran a little rough as well, and the heat in the cabin wasn't working well.  Then the indicator light for engine temperature came on and as I checked the gauge, I knew we had a problem.  This was an alarm that I wasn't going to ignore.  Straight to the garage!  Turns out we were quite low on coolant/antifreeze.   Had I ignored this warning, we would certainly have faced a large repair bill and, possibly, a long and cold walk.

This week, my friend Judy got a critical warning at home.  She didn't ignore the warning, but she didn't know exactly what to do about it either.  The carbon monoxide alarm at her home went off!  Having an alert system is not enough if you don't know how to respond.  Here's the low down and the links to get you the information you need about carbon monoxide and CO detectors.  (By the way, my friend's CO alarm was legitimate and she'll be getting a new furnace today!)

What to do when an alarm goes off:
Silence the alarm, but do not reset or unplug it.
Wake everyone up.  Check their health.  Get to a source of fresh air.
If you can, get out of the house.  (Do a head count, be certain.)
Open a few windows to air out the house.
Call 9-1-1, the fire department, or the gas company.
Do not return until the house has been completely checked.

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is tricky:
Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless, tasteless gas that is a by-product of combustion (burning).  Your furnace, space heaters, oven and stove, water heater, fireplace, grills, and vehicles may all produce CO.  Homes are designed to vent this out, but things can go wrong and if it stays inside, you can be harmed. 

The primary symptoms of CO poisoning are flu-like symptoms - headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, confusion and irritability.  As blood levels rise, it causes vomiting, loss of consciousness, brain damage and death.  CO poisoning is often misdiagnosed!  (You need a detector.)  CO poisoning occurs as the CO binds to the hemoglobin in your blood, creating COHb which is toxic.  You will not know that it's happening until you experience symptoms, including confusion.  Do you see the problem?

CO is certainly a concern at high levels for a short time, but also at low levels for a prolonged period of time.  Current UL Standard #2034 says your alarm must sound when low levels (30 ppm) have been detected for 30 days!  (This is why you don't reset your monitor, just silence it.)  These lower levels can cause slower, sneakier symptoms that are difficult to diagnose.  Your detector also looks for higher levels in much shorter time periods - like 400ppm for four minutes - that often cause a sudden onset of symptoms. 

Other thoughts about CO poisoning and detectors:
  • Every year there are many cases of CO poisoning on boats, campers, and cabins.  You need detectors there as well.
  • Average life-span of a CO detector is two years.  Plan to replace it that often, or as recommended on the package.  As technology pushed forward, the accuracy and reliability of safety devices generally increases.
  • A documented relationship exists between alcohol consumption and CO poisoning deaths.  Drink responsibly.
  • False alarms are deadly to ignore.  Take action every time your alarms go off.  If you are convinced they are false alarms, contact your local gas or fire authority to check the placement of your detectors and get new detectors.  If they continue to go off, you assuredly have a larger problem that needs to be addressed immediately.
  • Power outages (or furnace problems) often slow normal ventilation, and may cause people to improvise heating, often exposing people to greater CO poisoning risk.
  • Don't take the alarm for granted. Follow recommendations for gas and fuel appliances and make good choices that do not risk lives.
  • Generators must be placed outdoors, away from openings to the building like doors, windows and vents. 
  • Follow manufacturers instructions for location and installation on CO alarms or consult your local fire department or gas company.  Hard wired alarms need a battery backup.  Locations needs to ensure that the alarm will get adequate air flow to detect CO, it will be heard (especially at night), that it will not be damaged easily, and that it will not trigger false alarms.

For more information about carbon monoxide:
First Alert brand's website has detailed CO information.
About.com has this chemistry based article on how CO monitors work.
You can find information from the CDC and EPA, as well.
The Mayo clinic describes causes, symptoms, and treatment for CO poisoning.
OSHA's site reminds us the CO poisoning can occur at work, too.

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