Question: I just bought a house with gas appliances and an older furnace. I'm worried about carbon monoxide poisoning.
Answer: You can't see, smell or taste carbon monoxide, but at high levels, it can kill a person within a few minutes. In fact, this poisonous gas kills about 500 Americans every year.
Carbon monoxide is produced whenever any fuel such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal is burned. Cars, trucks, small gasoline engines, furnaces, water heaters, grills, fireplaces, wood and gas stoves and lanterns all produce carbon monoxide.
If you maintain and use these items properly, poisoning should not be a problem. However, if engines and appliances aren't working properly, or if they are used in an enclosed or poorly ventilated area, carbon monoxide gas can build up and become deadly.
The initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and weakness. As the poisoning progresses, the person may become confused, have trouble breathing and pass out.
Because these symptoms are easy to confuse with a bad cold, the flu or food poisoning, the person may ignore them or put off getting medical care. If poisoning occurs while someone is sleeping, that person may die without ever realizing that anything was wrong.
If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, open windows and doors to ventilate rooms. Go outside to breathe fresh air. Call your fire department or other emergency personnel. If symptoms seem severe, ask to be taken to a hospital.
To help prevent a serious medical problem, install a carbon monoxide alarm that carries an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification outside sleeping areas and on every floor of your home. The alarm will sound before dangerous levels can build up. Other devices, such as carbon monoxide indicator cards, can help detect high levels, but they don't have an audible alarm to wake you.
Having an alarm, however, won't stop the buildup of toxic gas. The only way to avoid CO poisoning is to prevent it. These steps can help:
• Ask a mechanic to inspect your vehicle's exhaust system to make sure it is working correctly. In winter, make sure the tailpipe is free of snow. If you warm up your car, pull it out of the garage. Running the engine in the garage, even with the door open, puts you at risk.
• Hire a professional to install fuel-burning appliances such as a gas dryer or water heater. Make sure the equipment carries UL certification.
• Have your furnace, water heater and gas dryer inspected annually to make sure they are functioning correctly.
• Clean and check chimneys and flues for your woodstove and fireplace every year.
• If you have a kerosene heater or other type of fuel-burning room heater, use it only when you are awake. Make sure it is properly vented.
• Never use a charcoal or gas grill indoors or in a garage.
• Do not use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is entirely preventable. Don't let maintenance on your home, vehicle and fuel-burning appliances slide. If the power goes out during a winter storm, be sure to use alternative heating sources properly. And if your carbon monoxide alarm sounds, don't ignore it even if you don't notice any symptoms.
Carbon monoxide is nicknamed the silent killer for a reason.
Have a question? Send it to