Be in the know about CO

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published October 12, 2016

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METRO DETROIT — Do you have a carbon monoxide detector in your house?

When was the last time you replaced the batteries or the entire monitor?  

Chances are, your monitor or batteries may be expired or, depending on the age of your home, you may not even have a detector.

In 2009, state legislators enacted Uniform Construction Code Section 125.1504f, which requires carbon monoxide detectors in all single- and multi-family dwellings. Now, seven years after the passing of the legislation, local experts are reminding homeowners to replace expired alarms.

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is found in fumes produced by gas ranges, burning charcoal and wood, portable generators, stoves, and lanterns. The gas is colorless and odorless, and prolonged exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, confusion and even death.

In 2010, fire departments across the U.S. responded to about 80,100 non-fire CO incidents in which the gas was found. This percentage increased by 96 percent from 40,900 incidents reported in 2003, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Each year, at least 430 people in the U.S. die and approximately 50,000 people visit the emergency room as a result of accidental CO poisoning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the gas’ stealthy appearance, CO poisoning is preventable.

Homeowners should purchase a detector that is listed by Underwriters Laboratories, according to West Bloomfield Fire Marshal Byron Turnquist. The detectors should be replaced every five years and installed according to manufacturer guidelines on each floor of a house and outside sleeping areas, he said.

“The loud, piercing alarm, that lets you know there truly is a problem,” Turnquist said, adding that the occasional chirp — like smoke alarms — alerts homeowners that the batteries need to be replaced.

Batteries should be tested each month and replaced every six months, Turnquist said.

“You’re not testing the gas sensor; you’re really just testing the battery. That’s another reason to replace (the detector) over time,” Turnquist said.

Partow Guity, a toxicologist at the Macomb County Health Department, said that CO detectors are important because accumulated exposure can be deadly.

“The initial symptoms are headache and nausea. Those are things people would feel, and it grabs their attention; however, when they’re asleep, or in some cases when people have been exposed to carbon monoxide and are drunk, they’re not conscious enough to leave the room,” she explained.

Guity said that homes typically are built in a way where there is a common hallway outside of bedrooms, and she recommends that homeowners install a detector in that area. For multi-level homes, she said one on each level “would be great.”

Detectors should not be placed in areas where CO is common — next to a garage, a generator or a furnace — because the alarm could be false, she said. Instead, follow the manufacturer’s directions. 

In the event that an alarm sounds, Turnquist said everyone should exit the house and call 911. People should tell dispatchers exactly what the alarm is — beeping every couple of minutes versus sounding an alarm — and let them know if anyone in the house has experienced any symptoms.

“Any prolonged exposure to any amount of it, you’re going to get a headache and dizziness,” he said. 

As the temperatures cool down, Guity said there are certain “don’ts” that people have to remember to avoid CO poisoning.

“One is never use a wood-burning fireplace and furnace simultaneously. … This causes backdrafting and accumulation of CO,” Guity said. “Do not operate a generator inside. That is a mistake many people make, and we do not want that because it most certainly causes accumulation of CO.”

Before warming up your car in the winter, Turnquist said, people should pull cars out of the garage. People also should avoid heating a house with their stove or oven. 

Keep the area around fossil-fuel heating equipment clean and unblocked. Before starting a furnace, homeowners should have the furnace inspected by a licensed contractor. Flues should be cleared of obstructions, such as bird nests, natural debris and, in the winter, snow.