Better Safe Than Sorry
Tips for Avoiding Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
by LeAnn R. Ralph
Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, and that, of course, is
exactly why it is so deadly.
I interviewed three fire chiefs and two emergency medical
in the area where I live in Wisconsin for a two-part series on
monoxide poisoning that I wrote for the newspaper at which I am
Here’s what they had to say. . .
Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels like wood, natural gas,
gasoline, kerosene, charcoal, oil or coal do not have enough oxygen
In general, the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include
headache, nausea, weakness, mental confusion and shortness of
Carbon monoxide poisoning often is described as creating flu-like
According to the fire chiefs and EMTs, the number one cause for
monoxide poisoning is a malfunctioning furnace, and they all
one specific case that occurred in our area last fall.
Members of a particular family noticed that they were suffering from
headaches and nausea. When they left the house during the day, the
headaches and nausea went away. When they returned at night, the
headaches and nausea returned. Still, the symptoms were nothing more
than an annoying headache and a bit of nausea so they thought
of it. Perhaps the whole family had been exposed to a virus of some
As the weather grew colder, the family began using the furnace more
and more. The symptoms grew worse until one evening, a family member
called 911 because they were all so ill.
First responders on the scene recognized the symptoms of carbon
monoxide poisoning and called the fire department. When firefighters
put the carbon monoxide tester by the heat register, it went off the
scale. EMTs had to wait to enter the home until the the windows and
doors had been opened to clear out the carbon monoxide.
Fortunately, all of the family members survived.
The fire chiefs and EMTs recommend having your furnace checked by a
certified furnace technician in late summer or early fall so that
know your furnace is functioning properly when heating season
If your furnace has vent pipes near ground level outside your home,
check the pipes when the temperature is below freezing to make sure
they are not plugged by snow or ice.
Garages can also be a source of carbon monoxide.
When the weather is very cold, people will start their car in a
that is attached to a house to let it warm up.
But even with the garage door open, carbon monoxide can seep in your
home, say the fire chiefs and EMTs. If the weather is cold for a
or more, the carbon monoxide can eventually build up to dangerous
level inside the house. And because new houses are built to be
air-tight and energy-efficient, the carbon monoxide has little
opportunity to escape.
“In ‘the good old days’ when people lived in drafty houses where the
curtains moved in the winter, you never heard of anyone being
by carbon monoxide,” said one of the EMTs.
If you want to let your car run for a while to warm it up, back it
of the garage and shut the door, say the fire chiefs and EMTs.
Garages also can pose a problem during winter weather for people who
like to work on their cars.
Last year, the 22-year-old grandson of one of our church members
while working on his car. The weather was especially cold outside,
he was working on his car in the garage with the door closed. The
young man would make adjustments to the engine, start the car to see
how it was running, shut it off, make more adjustments, start it
again. Eventually he was overcome by carbon monoxide.
Do not start your car (or snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle or
motorcycle) in the garage with the door closed for any reason.
Alternative Sources of Heat
If the electricity goes out in the winter, people are sometimes
tempted to try to keep their home warm until the electricity comes
back on by turning on a gas oven and opening the door or by starting
gas grill or charcoal grill inside the house.
Never use a gas oven or a barbecue grill to heat your home, say the
fire chiefs and EMTs.
Carbon monoxide can also be a problem when certain areas of a home
or a garage or a workshop -- are especially cold and people use a
fuel-burning space heater (kerosene is a good example) to provide
Before using a fuel-burning space heater, get it checked out by a
certified technician to make sure that it is functioning properly.
also be sure to operate it in a well-ventilated area by opening
windows and doors.
A few years ago during the winter, an elderly neighbor’s furnace
stopped working. She could not afford to have the furnace fixed or
replaced, so she purchased a kerosene heater and was using it to
the downstairs area of her house.
One day, the driver of a fuel-delivery truck stopped by to see if
liquid propane tank needed to be filled. The driver noticed that the
tank was at the same level it been at the last time he had stopped a
month earlier, so he went to house to make sure the woman was all
He knocked on the front door, and as soon as the woman opened the
door, he said he was nearly overcome by the kerosene fumes that
billowed from the house. He found out that the woman’s furnace had
stopped working and alerted the proper authorities who were able to
provide emergency shelter until a human services agency could
for funding to replace the furnace.
The elderly are more susceptible to fumes and to carbon monoxide
poisoning, said the fire chiefs and EMTs, and in this case, the
was lucky to have survived the experience.
If you must operate a fuel-burning space heater, be sure to open
Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Carbon monoxide detectors can be purchased at most hardware stores,
and prices can be anywhere from $20 up to around $50.
Many different types of detectors are available, ranging from a
straight carbon monoxide detector, to a combination detector that
alert you to the presence of carbon monoxide or natural gas, to
that are a combination carbon monoxide and smoke detector.
Some detectors are battery operated, some plug into an outlet, and
some have digital read-outs. No matter what type of detector you
in your home, if the alarm is going off, call the fire department,
gas company or a furnace repair technician to check it out.
The fire chiefs and EMTs noted that putting a carbon monoxide
near your fuel-burning furnace is a good idea. Carbon monoxide
detectors should also be installed on every level of the house, near
the main family area and near the bedroom areas.
If you have a gas water heater or a gas dryer or a gas stove in the
kitchen, you might want to install carbon monoxide detectors near
those appliances as well.
And always be sure to buy detectors that have been approved by a
recognized testing agency and have a seal of approval. Follow the
recommendations on the box as to how many detectors should be
installed and where they should be installed for that particular
Additional Tips to Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Remember that the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include
sleepiness, headache, nausea, weakness, shortness of breath and
If symptoms get better when you leave the house but get worse when
return, you might want to suspect that carbon monoxide poisoning is
If you think you have been exposed to carbon monoxide, leave your
house and call the fire department from a friend’s or neighbor’s
(or use your cell phone) and do not go back inside until the house
Do not open doors and windows until the fire department or a furnace
repair technician or a utility company employee has checked your
for carbon monoxide. Opening the doors and windows will reduce the
amount of carbon monoxide, and the testing device will not give
adequate information about the carbon monoxide level in your home.
If you suspect that a friend, relative or neighbor has been overcome
by carbon monoxide, leave the home immediately and call the fire
LeAnn R. Ralph is a reporter in Wisconsin. She also is the author of
books about growing up on a small family dairy farm 40 years ago.
Midwest Book Review calls this series of books “Highly recommended
reading!” You are invited to sign up for the twice-monthly
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