Protect Your Family and Yourself from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

United States
Environmental Protection
Agency
Indoor Environments Division (6609J)
Office of Air and Radiation
EPA-402-F-96-005
October 1996
Protect Your Family and
Yourself from Carbon
Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon Monoxide Can Be Deadly
Play it Safe
You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide, but at
high levels it can kill a person in minutes. Carbon
monoxide (CO) is produced whenever any fuel
such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood, or charcoal is
burned. If appliances that burn fuel are maintained
and used properly, the amount of CO produced is
usually not hazardous. However, if appliances are
not working properly or are used incorrectly,
dangerous levels of CO can result. Hundreds of
people die accidentally every year from CO
poisoning caused by malfunctioning or improperly
used fuel-burning appliances. Even more die from
CO produced by idling cars. Fetuses, infants,
elderly people, and people with anemia or with a
history of heart or respiratory disease can be
especially susceptible. Be safe. Practice the DO’s
and DON’Ts of carbon monoxide.
If you experience symptoms that you think could be
from CO poisoning:
CO Poisoning Symptoms
Know the symptoms of CO poisoning. At moderate
levels, you or your family can get severe
headaches, become dizzy, mentally confused,
nauseated, or faint. You can even die if these levels
persist for a long time. Low levels can cause
shortness of breath, mild nausea, and mild
headaches, and may have longer-term effects on
your health. Since many of these symptoms are
similar to those of the flu, food poisoning, or other
illnesses, you may not think that CO poisoning
could be the cause.
DO GET FRESH AIR IMMEDIATELY. Open
doors and windows, turn off combustion
appliances and leave the house.
DO GO TO AN EMERGENCY ROOM and tell
the physician you suspect CO poisoning. If CO
poisoning has occurred, it can often be
diagnosed by a blood test done soon after
exposure.
DO Be prepared to answer the following
questions for the doctor:
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Do your symptoms occur only in the house?
Do they disappear or decrease when you
leave home and reappear when you return?
Is anyone else in your household
complaining of similar symptoms? Did
everyone’s symptoms appear about the
same time?
Are you using any fuel-burning appliances
in the home?
Has anyone inspected your appliances
lately? Are you certain they are working
properly?
Prevention is the Key to Avoiding Carbon
Monoxide Poisoning
DO have your fuel-burning appliances -including oil and gas furnaces, gas water
heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas
or kerosene space heaters, fireplaces, and
wood stoves -- inspected by a trained
professional at the beginning of every heating
season. Make certain that the flues and
chimneys are connected, in good condition, and
not blocked.
DO choose appliances that vent their fumes to
the outside whenever possible, have them
properly installed, and maintain them according
to manufacturers’ instructions.
DO read and follow all of the instructions that
accompany any fuel-burning device. If you
cannot avoid using an unvented gas or
kerosene space heater, carefully follow the
cautions that come with the device. Use the
proper fuel and keep doors to the rest of the
house open. Crack a window to ensure enough
air for ventilation and proper fuel-burning.
DO call EPA’s IAQ INFO Clearinghouse (1-800438-4318) or the Consumer Product Safety
Commission (1-800-638-2772) for more
information on how to reduce your risks from
CO and other combustion gases and particles.
DON’T idle the car in a garage -- even if the
garage door to the outside is open. Fumes can
build up very quickly in the garage and living
area of your home.
DON’T use a gas oven to heat your home, even
for a short time.
DON’T ever use a charcoal grill indoors -- even
in a fireplace.
DON'T sleep in any room with an unvented gas
or kerosene space heater.
DON’T use any gasoline-powered engines
(mowers, weed trimmers, snow blowers, chain
saws, small engines or generators) in enclosed
spaces.
DON’T ignore symptoms, particularly if more
than one person is feeling them. You could lose
consciousness and die if you do nothing.
A Few Words About CO Detectors
Carbon Monoxide Detectors are widely available in
stores and you may want to consider buying one as a
back up -- BUT NOT AS A REPLACEMENT for proper
use and maintenance of your fuel-burning appliances.
However, it is important for you to know that the
technology of CO detectors is still developing, that there
are several types on the market, and that they are not
generally considered to be as reliable as the smoke
detectors found in homes today. Some CO detectors
have been laboratory-tested, and their performance
varied. Some performed well, others failed to alarm even
at very high CO levels, and still others alarmed even at
very low levels that don’t pose any immediate health
risk. And unlike a smoke detector, where you can easily
confirm the cause of the alarm, CO is invisible and
odorless, so it’s harder to tell if an alarm is false or a real
emergency.
So What’s a Consumer to Do?
First, don’t let buying a CO detector lull you into a false
sense of security. Preventing CO from becoming a
problem in your home is better than relying on an alarm.
Follow the checklist of DOs and DON’Ts above.
Second, if you shop for a CO detector, do some
research on features and don’t select solely on the basis
of cost. Non-governmental organizations such as
Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports), the
American Gas Association, and Underwriters
Laboratories (UL) can help you make an informed
decision. Look for UL certification on any detector you
purchase.
Carefully follow manufacturers’ instructions for its
placement, use, and maintenance.
If the CO detector alarm goes off:
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Make sure it is your CO detector and not your smoke
detector.
Check to see if any member of the household is
experiencing symptoms of poisoning.
If they are, get them out of the house immediately
and seek medical attention. Tell the doctor that you
suspect CO poisoning.
If no one is feeling symptoms, ventilate the home
with fresh air, turn off all potential sources of CO -your oil or gas furnace, gas water heater, gas range
and oven, gas dryer, gas or kerosene space heater
and any vehicle or small engine.
Have a qualified technician inspect your fuel-burning
appliances and chimneys to make sure they are
operating correctly and that there is nothing blocking
the fumes from being vented out of the house.