Carbon Monoxide Dangers in Home Heating Systems
The chill of winter has set-in across the U.S. A lot of us have our woodstove cranked up with these below freezing temperatures! Hopefully, everyone reading this changed the batteries in their smoke detectors and their carbon monoxide alarms when the clocks changed a few weeks ago. If you haven’t done so yet, let this be your reminder.
Speaking of smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms, have you had your home heating system checked and serviced for the year by a professional service provider? It doesn’t take a lot of time but if there is an issue or a potential issue, it is better to find it preemptively before it could be a serious situation later on. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that is the product of incomplete combustion of organic matter. In the body, CO acts on hemoglobin in the blood and prevents it from carrying oxygen to body tissues. It is a lethal killer that has taken people from my life, so therefore worthy of discussion.
Symptoms of CO poisoning are often described as “flu-like” and include headaches, dizziness, weakness, muscle cramps, vomiting, chest pains, confusion and/or disorientation. Feelings of lethargy and being tired are also common. More extreme signs/symptoms can include seizures and coma, which if not treated immediately, will lead to death. Eventually you pass out from the effects, and sadly, victims often never wake back up.
Sometimes a running generator either in a garage or too close to a structure is sometimes the culprit of high CO levels too. Make sure generators are outside of the structure and vented properly.
One of our employees was in the volunteer fire department a few years ago, and he has told stories of getting numerous calls for heating system malfunctions and subsequent smoke alarm or CO alarm activations as soon as the cold hit. Residents didn’t know they had an issue with their furnace, gas water heater or woodstove until the smoke detector or CO alarm sounded. Luckily, they had these devices in place and they were functional. At a minimum you should have at least one CO alarm in your house and one smoke detector in each room of your house, and additional in the common areas, such as the kitchen and living room.
Often times the cause of the alarm was an easy fix, such as the flue was closed or the damper had malfunctioned. Other times it was more serious, resulting in the effects of early on CO poisoning or a chimney fire.
Typically, removing a victim of CO poisoning from the effected environment to fresh air immediately and subsequent administration of 100% oxygen by emergency medical personnel is the most common treatment method. In the most severe cases, hyperbaric oxygen treatment can be required.
Most fire departments these days carry a five gas meter, which can detect carbon monoxide as well as give the ambient oxygen levels. If ever you find yourself in the situation and are unsure of the cause of a victim being overcome, call 911 and let rescue personnel with self-contained breathing apparatus and gas meters rescue the victim, so you don’t become one too.