Babies, children and pets show the first symptoms
A poisonous gas may be lurking in your home without you even knowing it, until you become sick.
“We average about 30-50 calls a year for some type of carbon monoxide alarm,” said John Burke, deputy fire chief in Sandwich. “Approximately one-quarter of them have some significant levels of carbon monoxide.”
Carbon monoxide, known as the “silent killer” is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that results from incomplete burning of fuels according to the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services. Those fuels include natural gas, propane, oil wood, coal, and gasoline.
The only way to know if carbon monoxide levels are elevated in your home is by installing carbon monoxide detectors. They have been a requirement in every home since 2006.
In 2015, Massachusetts fire departments responded to 15,607 carbon monoxide alarms and confirmed the presence of carbon monoxide in 4,782 cases.
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are “flu-like,” said Burke. Smaller pets, babies and children will exhibit the symptoms first, he said.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are:
- Shortness of breath
- Cherry red skin, especially the cheeks
- A feeling of general weakness and not feeling well
“At this time of year, a person may be thinking they have the flu when it may be carbon monoxide poisoning,” said Burke.
Paramedics and EMTs have small carbon monoxide detectors on their medical bags they carry into the house when responding to an emergency call. If the alarm goes off, then they know they have a potential problem.
All of the Sandwich Fire Department trucks carry four gas detectors. While they are mainly used to measure for levels of carbon monoxide, they can also measure hydrogen, oxygen and alcohol vapor.
“The top producers of carbon monoxide are gas heat and gas appliances,” said Burke. “These include gas fireplaces, dryers, stoves and furnaces. Next on the list are oil burners, fireplaces and chimneys.”
If you think you are safe when the wood or chimney sweep logs have burned in the fireplace, the embers are smoldering and you decide to close the damper, don’t do it.
“The highest levels of carbon monoxide are actually when the fire is smoldering and at its lowest,” said Burke. “Carbon monoxide is lighter than air so it will go up the vent stack in the chimney but if the damper is closed it has nowhere to go but back into the house. We always recommend leaving the damper open a crack.”
He also provided the following tips.
Prevention and Safety Tips
- Install carbon monoxide detectors within 10 feet of every bedroom
- If the bedrooms are more than 10 feet apart, install two monitors, one at each end of the hallway
- Install a detector on each level of the house
- Opt for plug-in detectors with a battery pack and a digital screen
- If possible, have the detectors in a high-traffic area, so you can see it when you walk by
- Vacuum the detectors to keep them free of dust
- Most detectors are good for five years and then need to be replaced
- Batteries need to be changed annually, but sooner if there are power outages or a power outage that lasts a couple of days
- Do not place the detectors near a gas appliance because it will lessen the life of the detector. There is always a tiny amount of carbon monoxide given off every time you light the stove.
- Oil furnaces should be serviced every year
- Gas burners should be serviced every two years, sometimes longer because they burn cleaner than oil. Burke recommends checking with your plumber for service requirements.
- Have your chimney checked every year by a chimney sweep, especially if the fireplace is used more than a couple of times per week and/or if the oil burner or gas burner are vented through the same chimney.
- Clean snow away from outside gas vents. They are required to be 36 inches off the ground but a build-up of snow can cover the vent and block carbon monoxide from escaping out of the house.
- Leave the garage door open for a few minutes after returning home to allow the exhaust to ventilate out and be careful not to run the car in the garage with the door closed.
One final tip from the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services:If you think you have symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning or if your alarm is sounding, contact your fire department and leave the house immediately.
Further information is available online at: www.mass.gov/dfs