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Environmental Health - Information - Carbon Monoxide


As the weather turns cooler and people start using their heaters to warm their homes the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning increases. Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas. Unless you have a meter to measure the gas level you may not know you are being poisoned.

There are many sources of carbon monoxide poisoning that are associated with heating your home:

  • Gas stoves
  • Leaking chimneys
  • Unvented kerosene and gas space heaters
  • Furnaces
  • Wood stoves
  • Fireplaces

Carbon Monoxide is formed when fuel is burned. To prevent the gas from reaching deadly levels you can make sure your fuel-burning heater is properly vented. Always open the flue when the fireplace is in use, wood burning stoves and kerosene heaters should be properly vented to the outdoors. Trained technicians should periodically inspect furnaces and fireplace chimneys.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to the flu and include the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Irregular breathing

A simple way to insure you and your family's safety is to purchase a carbon monoxide detector. These detectors are sold at most stores that sell smoke alarms. The carbon monoxide detector works just like a smoke detector, alarming the occupants of dangerous levels of the poisonous gas.

Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible, odorless gas. Common sources of CO include cigarettes, kerosene and gas space heaters, gas stoves and water heaters, leaky fireplaces and idling automobiles/lawn mowers in closed garages. It is typically produced when fuel-burning appliances are not working properly, resulting in incomplete combustion. Carbon monoxide poisonings are more common during the cooler weather of winter, when people start using their heaters. Carbon monoxide typically becomes a problem when fuel-burning appliances are improperly installed, maintained or there is inadequate ventilation.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a product of complete combustion. It also is a common product of human respiration and commonly used as an indicator of inadequate ventilation (“fresh air”). Carbon dioxide poisonings are very rare and it usually is not a health issue in non-industrial settings. When they do occur, they are usually associated with the use of ”dry-ice” (which is actually frozen CO2) in a non-ventilated area.

Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide Health Effects

Carbon monoxide interferes with the distribution of oxygen in our blood and can result in mechanical asphyxiation. The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established an 8-hour Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 35 ppm. A PEL is the threshold at which a person can reasonably be expected to work for eight hours without any significant health effects. Exposures between 35-200 ppm for less than two hours can result in mild headache, nausea and fatigue. Exposures between 200-400 ppm for less than two hours can result in serious headaches, nausea. Exposures over 400 ppm can result in unconsciousness and eventually death. Infants, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory problems are the most susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you suspect CO poisoning in your house or camper, fresh air should be brought into the house immediately by opening all windows and doors, turning off all combustion appliances, leaving the house and seeking medical attention immediately.

How Can You Protect Your Family From Carbon Monoxide?

The best way to protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning is to have natural gas, propane, oil or gasoline appliances be inspected annually by a qualified technician to ensure they are working to manufacturers specifications and that they are properly vented to the outdoors. The chimney should be cleaned and inspected by certified chimney sweep prior to seasonal use. It is strongly recommended that a carbon monoxide detector be installed in the house. Remember that the detector is your last line of defense and is not a substitute for common sense and proper maintenance. Purchase a carbon monoxide detector based upon its quality rather than price alone. A good carbon monoxide detector will meet Underwriters Laboratories Inc. standards, have a long-term warranty and be easily self-tested and reset. Detectors that display a reading rather than just having an alarm can offer the advantage of detecting a problem before it becomes critical. Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed away from fuel burning appliances at eye level in an area close to sleeping areas.

Carbon Monoxide Resources on the Internet

Below you will find links for additional information on Carbon Monoxide. Inclusion on this list does not indicate that we fully agree with the entire contents of the page cited.

Page last updated: 07/9/13