Every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hundreds of people in the U.S. die from carbon-monoxide (CO) poisoning—and the invisible, odorless gas sickens thousands more.
The numbers seem even more tragic when you consider that most of these deaths and illnesses are preventable. Here are tips from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to help protect yourself and your loved ones at home and work.
- Make sure you have CO alarms—and that they work. You should have a CO alarm on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas. Test them and replace batteries regularly, too. The alarms themselves should be replaced every five years or as recommended by the manufacturer.
- Get your chimney and furnace checked. A chimney or furnace that isn’t functioning properly can lead to CO buildup inside your home. Have a professional examination and/or service before you begin using them.
- Be careful with generators and grills. Neither should ever be used inside your home or in an enclosed space, such as a garage—even semi-enclosed spaces like porches can be risky, too. Keep generators at least 20 feet away from the house when in operation.
In general, the same precautions for homes apply here, but there are a few additional considerations for the workplace, particularly one where gas-powered machinery is used:
- Be mindful of ventilation. Every year, workers are poisoned by CO while using fuel-burning equipment in areas that don’t have adequate ventilation.
- Try using different tools indoors. Consider electric tools or ones powered by compressed air, and if possible, avoid using forklifts, pressure washers and other gas-powered equipment. Ensure machinery and tools are maintained properly, too.
- Report unsafe conditions or issues. If you see something that might cause CO buildup, or you suspect CO poisoning in you or a co-worker, get people out of the area and report the problem to your employer immediately.
Whether you’re at home or work, always be on the lookout for symptoms of CO exposure: They include dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, and nausea. If you suspect an issue, leave the area as soon as possible and call 911—because when it comes to CO, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
You can take several precautions to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- Install a carbon monoxide alarm in the hallway near every area of your home that is used for sleeping. Make sure furniture or draperies do not cover the alarm. Travel carbon monoxide alarms are also available for use elsewhere.
However, in your home, an alarm is not a substitute for making sure that appliances that can produce carbon monoxide are in good repair and safe.
- Check to see that your appliances are installed and comply with building codes and manufacturer’s instructions. Qualified professionals should install most appliances.
- Get your heating system professionally inspected and serviced every year, as well as chimneys and flues.
- Do not use charcoal inside your house or your garage, vehicle or tent.
- In an attached garage, even if the door is open, do not leave a car running.
- Do not operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in a room where people are sleeping
- Do not operate a portable generator or any other gasoline engine-powered tool in or near any house, garage or other enclosed space.
- If a carbon monoxide alarm sounds, go outside and call 911 immediately. Do not return to the building until emergency services personnel gives you the all-clear.
Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when carbon monoxide builds up in your bloodstream. When too much carbon monoxide is in the air, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This can lead to serious tissue damage, or even death. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by burning gas, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel. Improperly ventilated appliances and engines, particularly in a tightly sealed or enclosed space, may allow carbon monoxide to accumulate to dangerous levels. If you think you or someone you’re with may have carbon monoxide poisoning, get into fresh air and seek emergency medical care.
- Dull headache
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be especially dangerous for people who are sleeping or intoxicated. People may have irreversible brain damage or even be killed before anyone realizes there’s a problem.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is caused by inhaling combustion fumes. When too much carbon monoxide is in the air you’re breathing, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This prevents oxygen from reaching your tissues and organs. Various fuel-burning products and engines produce carbon monoxide. Normally the amount of carbon monoxide produced by these sources isn’t cause for concern. But if they’re used in a closed or partially closed space — such as using a charcoal grill indoors — the carbon monoxide can build to dangerous levels. Smoke inhalation during a fire also can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.