What You Should Know To Protect Your Family From Carbon Monoxide

What You Should Know To Protect Your Family From Carbon Monoxide

As the General Manager of an HVAC company, carbon monoxide and customer safety are always on my mind. After all it’s our job as professionals in the heating and cooling industry to make sure that our products are vented properly, and installed safely. On the service end our technicians are required to check for potentially unsafe conditions such as fire hazards, gas, and carbon monoxide leaks. In many cases customers are grateful for the information, and typically take steps to resolve the threat. However, there are people who shrug off carbon monoxide, or the threat of, as an insignificant problem that can be resolved at a later date. In these cases I am always shocked by the misconception that a failing appliance allowing potentially fatal gas into a home is “no big deal”. Unfortunately the problem is that there are many myths about what is considered “safe”. Even more appalling is that unqualified people, including some industry “professionals” perpetuate the myths and leave people with a false sense of security.

These situations often arise when a customer wants their furnace or water heater to make it through another season, or “a few more years”. Professionals in the industry tell the consumer what is safe, while the seemingly well meaning but misinformed repairmen tell the customer what they want to hear.

The best way to protect you and your family from Carbon Monoxide is to know the facts about how it is created, how it is detected, and the best methods to prevent emergency situations from occurring in the first place.

What is Carbon Monoxide (CO)?

According to the Carbon Monoxide Awareness Coalition of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, or CMAC, “carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas which could be created whenever a fuel (such as wood, gasoline, coal, natural gas, kerosene, etc.) is burning. However, sometimes other odors and smells are present with carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur in any situation where a person is exposed to an incomplete burning of fossil fuel. Thus you may be exposed to carbon monoxide when:

  • You leave your car, truck, or even engine running
  • Your home contains an incorrectly vented or malfunctioning hot water heater, furnace, space heater, fireplace, kitchen cooking stove, or portable generator (or other gas ran appliance). For example, don’t deep fry a turkey inside of your home.
  • You burn charcoal, alcohol, or gasoline in an enclosed tent, camper, or room.
  • Other engines which can create dangerous CO include forklifts, high pressure washers, concrete cutting saws, power trowels, floor buffers, and welders. (These poisonings occur most often when this type of equipment is used in buildings or semi-enclosed spaces.)

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning can be Subtle. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may not be as obvious as most people think. We commonly hear stories of the family that is overcome by a faulty furnace, found dead or in a coma. But less profound cases of carbon monoxide exposure can also result in severe disability or even death. Often times, the first symptoms of CO toxicity show up as flu like symptoms: headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lethargy, confusion, disorientation and blurred vision. For this reason, exposure to CO can confused with flu, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and migraine or other headaches. Persons with heart conditions may experience increased chain pain. The delayed onset of severe symptoms can arise or worsen two to 40 days after the exposure and include behavioral and neurological symptoms including memory loss, confusion, seizures, urinary incontinence, loss of bowel function, and disorientation.

As the symptoms described above mimic so many other conditions, particularly flu, Emergency Room doctors may not properly diagnose this condition in its early stages and it may not even be considered in cardiac cases where it was the primary cause.

The winter is a particularly significant time for such exposure, as it is the time that furnaces and boilers are running overtime, to keep our homes warm. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control, US Government) reports that as many as 40,000 people seek medical attention in the United States as a result of CO poisoning and more than 2,500 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide damage. The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air estimates that 2 billion people worldwide are at risk and that 1.6 million premature deaths occur worldwide yearly, mainly among women and children and is responsible for more than half of the poisoning deaths world wide due to the use of biomass fuels indoors for heating and cooking.[1]

The good news is that carbon monoxide poisoning is 100% preventable.

What can I do to protect myself and my family?[2]

  1. Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and inspected before each heating season.
  2. Use non-electrical space heaters only in well vented areas.
  3. Don’t start or leave running cars, trucks, or other vehicles in enclosed areas.
  4. Properly install carbon monoxide detectors on each floor in your home and follow instructions for checking the batteries monthly.

C-MAC recommends the use of carbon monoxide detectors in your home to help alert you to increased levels of CO. BUT REMEMBER THEY ARE NOT FOOLPROOF![3] CO detectors are designed to go off when Carbon Monoxide levels reach a dangerous emergency level over a set amount of time. If too much carbon monoxide is released too quickly, these detectors may not go off until symptoms are already present. Others reset themselves often and will go off sooner. No detector is foolproof or therefore a substitute for safety precautions.

IF your detector goes off follow these simple C-MAC Guidelines:


If your detector or alarm sounds and you are experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning, leave the premises, and dial 911.

If your alarm sounds and you are not experiencing symptoms, call your heating and cooling company for emergency service. Open windows, and evacuate pets, children, elderly, and people with health conditions.


If your detector alarm sounds and you have NO SYMPTOMS of CO poisoning: First check the detector, turn off any appliances or other sources of combustion (furnace, water heater, fireplace, generator, etc.), and get fresh air into the building. Call a qualified heating service or appliance repair company to adjust or repair appliance as needed.


If you think you have symptoms of CO poisoning, and you do not have a detector, call 911.

First Alert, makers of CO detectors, no product endorsement or particular brand name advertising is intended. [1]

Allegheny County Health Department, http://www.achd.net/injury/pubs/htm/coawareness.htm [2]

Carbon Monoxide Awareness Coalition of Pittsburgh [3]