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Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. It is produced by the incomplete burning of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. Appliances fueled with natural gas, liquefied petroleum (LP gas), oil, kerosene, coal, or wood may produce CO. Burning charcoal produces CO. Running cars produce CO.
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Every year, over 200 people in the United States die from CO produced by fuel-burning appliances (furnaces, ranges, water heaters, room heaters). Others die from CO produced while burning charcoal inside a home, garage, vehicle or tent. Still others die from CO produced by cars left running in attached garages. Several thousand people go to hospital emergency rooms for treatment for CO poisoning.
The initial symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu (but without the fever). They include:
Many people with CO poisoning mistake their symptoms for the flu or are misdiagnosed by physicians, which sometimes results in tragic deaths.
The health effects of CO depend on the level of CO and length of exposure, as well as each individual's health condition. The concentration of CO is measured in parts per million (ppm).
Health effects from exposure to CO levels of approximately 1 to 70 ppm are uncertain, but most people will not experience any symptoms. Some heart patients might experience an increase in chest pain. As CO levels increase and remain above 70 ppm, symptoms may become more noticeable (headache, fatigue, nausea). As CO levels increase above 150 to 200 ppm, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death are possible.
If you think you are experiencing any of the symptoms of CO poisoning, get fresh air immediately. Open windows and doors for more ventilation, turn off any combustion appliances, and leave the house. Call your fire department and report your symptoms. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing.
It is also important to contact a doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis. Tell your doctor that you suspect CO poisoning is causing your problems. Prompt medical attention is important if you are experiencing any symptoms of CO poisoning when you are operating fuel-burning appliances. Before turning your fuel-burning appliances back on, make sure a qualified service person checks them for malfunction.
CO detectors/alarms always have been and still are designed to alarm before potentially life-threatening levels of CO are reached. The UL standard 2034 (1998 revision) has stricter requirements that the detector/alarm must meet before it can sound. As a result, the possibility of nuisance alarms is decreased.
CO alarms should be installed according to the manufacturer's instructions. CPSC recommends that one CO alarm be installed in the hallway outside the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area of the home. CO alarms may be installed into a plug-in receptacle or high on the wall because CO from any source will be well mixed with the air in the house. Make sure furniture or draperies cannot cover up the alarm.
Never ignore an alarming CO detector/alarm. If the detector/alarm sounds:
Consumers should follow the manufacturer's instructions. Using a test button, some detectors/alarms test whether the circuitry as well as the sensor, which senses CO, is working, while the test button on other detectors only tests whether the circuitry is working. For those units, which test the circuitry only, some manufacturers sell separate test kits to help the consumer test the CO sensor inside the alarm.
CPSC worked closely with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to help develop the safety standard (UL 2034) for CO detectors/alarms. CPSC helps promote carbon monoxide safety awareness to raise awareness of CO hazards and the need for regular maintenance of fuel-burning appliances. CPSC recommends that every home have a CO detector/alarm that meets the requirements of the most recent UL standard 2034 or the IAS 6-96 standard in the hallway near every separate sleeping area. CPSC also works with industry to develop voluntary and mandatory standards for fuel-burning appliances.
On September 15, 1993, Chicago, Illinois became one of the first cities in the nation to adopt an ordinance, effective October 1, 1994, requiring the installation of CO detectors/alarms in all new single-family homes and in existing single-family residences that have new oil or gas furnaces. Several other cities also require CO detectors/alarms in apartment buildings and single-family dwellings.
CO detectors/alarms are available for boats and recreational vehicles and should be used. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association requires CO detectors/alarms in motor homes and in towable recreational vehicles that have a generator or are prepped for a generator.