When it comes to carbon monoxide and the severe sickness and death that can occur, I take it very personally. One winter, many years ago, I borrowed my brother’s carbon monoxide detector to see if anything would happen if I let my furnace continually run. Not only did I discover that I had elevated levels, but if I let my furnace run on a very cold night I might not have survived. I attributed a CO detector to saving my life and everyone should use this handy device in their homes to protect their families.
When discussing this gas which is harmful to your health, we first need to state what it is. According to the EPA, “Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that can increase the severity of lung ailments, cause dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and even death.”1 It is a product of incomplete combustion and can come from a wide range of sources inside a home or business.
What are the possible indoor sources of carbon monoxide?
Again, the EPA is a great resource. The EPA provides a list of possible CO sources that include: back-drafting and leaking from furnaces, hot water heaters, and fireplaces. Additional sources include gas stoves, generators, and gas-powered equipment. Car and truck exhaust in an attached garage could also provide this dangerous gas.
Basically anywhere you have combustion, you could have carbon monoxide. That can be anything ranging from a clothes dryer to a forklift.
What are the possible symptoms from elevated carbon monoxide levels?
Possible symptoms of elevated CO levels are headaches, impaired vision, dizziness, nausea, flu-like symptoms, or even death.
The symptoms one experiences is a function of concentration and duration. These effects are due to oxygen not reaching your key organs in a sufficient amount.
I often investigate homes because the inhabitants are feeling ill. I distinctly remember two cases where people were getting sick at specific times of the day. After carefully measuring throughout their home I would ask the client if they felt sick around mealtimes. After thinking about it, they would say that their headaches occurred around that time. Was it something they were eating? “No” I would answer. “Your stove is releasing high levels of carbon monoxide.” At that point, the stove would need to be repaired or replaced immediately.
At another job that I went to, the client again complained of headaches. I noticed that the flue to her hot water heater was improperly angled (See Photo 1) and possibly sending elevated levels of CO throughout her home. Ironically, she was under the belief that it couldn’t be from the water heater because she recently had a new one installed. The company assured her that it wouldn’t be a problem. I instructed her to find a better company! The flue should always be sloped upward as it moves away from the combustion appliance.
A word on Carbon Monoxide Detectors
I cannot overemphasize the need to have a carbon monoxide detector on every floor of your home! But a final story indicates how a detector’s alarm might be misleading.
We had one client who reported that his CO detector would go off at odd times in the middle of the night. He had the gas company and a number of professionals at his home to try and find out what was going on in the property. No one could figure it out. While working on my assessment, I wrote down the information on the detector and manufacturer. I then discovered on the company’s FAQ sheet that detectors will sometimes go off in the middle of the night when the electrical power grid for the area powers down and then later powers back up. For some homes with an older electrical service, this would send a powerful jolt that would set off the detector’s alarm. When the detector used only batteries, the alarms were no longer set off.
Carbon monoxide is something that you can not mess around with. The first step is to make sure you have a detector on every level of your home. When the alarm goes off, do not delay in taking safety measures. Immediately open windows and properly ventilate your home.
However, CO detectors will only alarm when there are really high levels of carbon monoxide. They typically will not alarm if your levels are only slightly elevated. If you suspect that there might be an issue, please take the time to inspect your property and have a professional like Indoor Science see if there is a carbon monoxide problem. If you are like me, it could just save your life.