Carbon monoxide: a silent danger that can be stopped

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published December 3, 2014

METRO DETROIT — Many things can go wrong inside a house.

One of the scarier potential problems is carbon monoxide. It consists of one carbon atom and one oxygen atom, and is also known as CO.

Carbon monoxide causes fear because people don’t know it’s around in the first place. It is a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas that poses toxic effects when it goes undetected. The gas becomes prevalent in areas when fuel doesn’t burn as intended.

The poisonous gas comes from an array of sources, including cars, malfunctioning fuel-burning appliances and engine-powered equipment. Carbon monoxide may be present in a house that contains a cracked furnace, or if an automobile is running inside a garage.

And since it’s colorless and odorless, carbon monoxide can invade homes silently and potentially destroy lives.

“That is what is so scary — the fact that it is odorless and colorless and people don’t know they have carbon monoxide poisoning probably until it’s too late,” said Lorraine Carli, spokesperson for the National Fire Protection Association.

Carli said fire departments nationwide reporting carbon monoxide-related cases between 2006-2010 averaged about 72,000 annually.

Fraser Department of Public Safety Lt. Dan Kolke oversees the city’s fire department and spoke to some of the causes of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Furnaces are the big things — if furnaces have a crack in it or cause a problem. Sometimes it’s blocked chimneys because birds build nests, but most people have chimney covers now,” Kolke said.

He said that in a given year, the Fraser DPS usually receives no more than 20 calls related to carbon monoxide. Most of the time, the calls end up being due to faulty carbon monoxide detectors.

“I can remember probably three (occurrences) in 25 years on the job where people were sick, and 10-15 times altogether when the sensor determined that carbon monoxide was spilling into the house,” Kolke said. “What will happen is if people get (poisoned), people won’t know.

“Some get dizziness, nausea, headaches, shortness of breath and impaired judgment. If everyone is acting that way, they (should) call the fire department. If it’s just one person, it may just be the flu.”

Kolke said that when the department receives a call, Fraser officials will come out with their own sensor and test carbon monoxide levels. If they find a leak, they will shut down the furnace and take the affected people to the hospital.

As both Kolke and Carli said, it’s best to take action before such a situation occurs. The way to do that is to have a carbon monoxide detector up and running in the home at all times.

Carli said a detector should be installed outside each sleeping area and on every level of a home, with interconnected alarms being a strong way to warn individuals of possible peril. The NFPA recommends that people choose a carbon monoxide alarm that “has the label of a recognized testing laboratory.”

“You want an early warning sign,” she said.

Buying carbon monoxide detectors is not about the bells and whistles, Kolke said. It’s more about having a detector in the house that is trustworthy and does what it’s meant to do.

“You can buy a detector at any Home Depot or Lowe’s or stores like that,” he said. “There’s not any one better than the other. You want one with audio, and all are kind of expensive.

“Just go to the store and ask advice of the salespeople. The most expensive one won’t be the best. (Some) work better than others.”

Once the detector is purchased, the homeowner should follow the manufacturer’s instructions and go from there. And if a detector does go off, don’t hesitate to take immediate measures.

“Get to a fresh-air place, like outside, or open the windows,” Carli said. “Then call the fire department.”

For more information, read the NFPA’s press kit on carbon monoxide at www.nfpa.org/carbonmonoxidekit.