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Carbon Monoxide Awareness

Carbon Monoxide Awareness

Here is a story that hits close to home. We have some close friends that heard a shrieking sound being emitted from their Carbon Monoxide (CO) detector one night. It is also important to note that they have two young children. Yet they acted and reacted casually as if it were the clock alarm beside the bed.

In the morning I received a call informing me that their CO detector had gone off. They were asking if I knew what the problem might be. My first question was, "What did you do when it went off"? The second question, "Why did you not call me to come out immediately"? The reply, nothing and no reason to call, we couldn't see anything wrong and we all felt OK, so we went to bed.

Carbon Monoxide - The Silent Killer

This is all too typical a response; persons often will call my company at 2:00 AM and inform us that the CO detector has just gone off (alarmed). No, they do not want us out. They want to know what the problem is and how they can fix it. In addition, when they do not take our advice, they further refuse our advice to call the Utility. Strange, isn't it? With all the media attention over CO related events and deaths. Why is it consumers are obsessed about asbestos, PCB's, CFC's, nuclear power, water quality, and other potential products that may, or may not have, any documented environmental impact, yet these same people can be so carefree about such an undisputable hazard that takes its toll - like invisible, tasteless, odorless, but ubiquitous Carbon Monoxide?

If consumers were to have searched the web August 28, 2004 through a Google News search on the Internet regarding (CO) Carbon Monoxide, they would have been able to return five leading headlines that involved high levels of CO poisoning. Further there have been approximately 12 deaths due to the aftermath of hurricanes Charlie and Francis in the US and winter is not even officially here yet!

In Canada, we too get our share of CO deaths, and more often than not, most incidents are never properly diagnosed because the symptoms mimic those of the common flue. With the heating season just beginning we are sure to hear more reports about deaths and near deaths involving CO poisoning.

Monoxide Myths - Clearing the Air

Even though CO is a serious condition that can exist there are also some myths that should be dispelled. They are:

Myth #1 Cracked heat exchangers make CO.

Not certain who started this myth, but CO is produced as a result of incomplete combustion. A cracked heat exchanger might allow products of combustion to enter the air stream. In some rare cases, it can cause flame impingement when air from the furnace blower enters through the crack in the heat exchanger. Now, this does not mean that we shouldn't replace defective furnace heat exchangers - we should. The point is that incomplete combustion produces CO, not cracks.

Myth #2 If, it meets code. its safe.

Meeting code is a passing grade - kind of like getting a D on your final examination at school. Code does not provide protection for every situation. Thousands of installations have passed code with flying colors yet have been tested to be producing obscenely dangerous levels of CO. The point here is if testing is not performed, no one can say for certain there is a potential hazard present.

Myth #3 Blue flames don't make CO.

Without the use of proper testing equipment that is regularly checked and calibrated there is no way to know for certain that CO is not present. Testing of appliances with blue flames frequently show higher levels of CO in flue gas than is allowed.

Myth #4 Carbon Monoxide is odorless.

Theoretically speaking this is true. However, when fuels create CO they also create aldehydes. Aldehydes are created in a blowing/unstable flame. Aldehydes are a chemical make up of water and leftover carbon, and have a very strong sharp smell and cause the nose and eyes to run.

Myth #5 Carbon Monoxide is colorless.

Again theoretically speaking this is true. However, when fuels create CO they also create carbon/black soot. This is because when we have incomplete combustion we have left over carbon, except in the case of a blowing flame. So, being able to recognize some of the warning signs is imperative to the safety of the occupants with the building.

Myth #6 Carbon Monoxide is a poison.

Not certain why we say, "Carbon Monoxide poisoning," other than CO is highly toxic to our bodies just like poisons, and maybe its easier for consumers to understand the harmful effects. The truth is CO causes our body to suffocate from the inside out.

How CO Causes Death - Symptoms to Watch For

Red blood cells (hemoglobin) absorb oxygen when we breathe carrying oxygen to the brain to keep it alive. The brain tells the heart to beat and so on. Red blood cells unfortunately are drawn to CO approximately 250 times more than they are drawn to oxygen. Therefore if we breathe in even the slightest amount of CO the blood rapidly absorbs it and sends it to the brain. The brain does not get enough oxygen so it tells the heart to beat faster. Then we either suffer a heart attack or the blood picks up more CO because the heart is beating faster delivering more CO to the brain. A vicious cycle continues until finally the brain suffocates and the heart stops.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning are tightness across the forehead, headaches, giddiness, faintness, flushing, muscular weakness, mental confusion, collapse, nausea, vomiting and dimness of vision. These symptoms mimic those of the flu. Since Carbon Monoxide enters our bodies through the air we breathe into our lungs and is absorbed into our blood stream, the usual treatment is to administer oxygen as soon as possible.

Minimize the Risk

As homeowners, tenants or landlords there are many things that they can do to minimize the possibility of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. They are as follows:

  • Keep the utility room or furnace areas clean and clear of debris. Restricting air to the appliance can starve the air causing incomplete combustion to occur.
  • Make sure that if the furnace is in an enclosed utility room that there is sufficient air to allow for complete combustion to take place. If there is not sufficient air, a combustion air intake pipe must be installed from outside.
  • Be sure to check the combustion air intake screen if there is a separate combustion air intake pipe installed to the outdoors. All too often combustion air vents are found closed or blocked, because they allow cold air to fall in or be drawn into the building continuously creating comfort problems. Mechanical combustion air dampers that interlock with the appliances that resolve comfort problems are available. They open only when the appliances are operating, eliminating the cold air problem. These motorized interlocked dampers are relatively inexpensive and very reliable.
  • Have the heating equipment and appliances cleaned by qualified service technicians to ensure that they are operating safely and efficiently. Dirty burners or deteriorated venting systems may leak Carbon Monoxide into the building.
  • When using a fireplace or wood stove that does not utilize outdoor air for the combustion process, make certain to leave a window open during use. These appliances use and exhaust huge amounts of air from the building that can create back drafting.
  • Be certain chimneys are cleaned and inspected on a regular basis for debris and obstructions. Often in the summer birds, raccoons, squirrels, and even ducks have been known to use the chimneys as nests.
  • In homes with attached garages open the garage door before starting the car. Back the car out immediately. Do not allow the car to sit in the garage running. Often there is a bedroom above and/or an entry door to the building. Check the foundation where the garage and building meet to ensure that all cracks and holes around wires and pipes are sealed.
  • When using a fireplace or wood stove never go to bed with a fire still burning; put it out and leave the damper open until the next day. Think of this as a campfire. You would not leave a campfire unattended.
  • Purchase an approved Carbon Monoxide detector. Compare detectors, as some require replacement sensors and or batteries, some wire directly into the building wiring, while others simply plug into any standard 120-volt outlet. Still others require no replacement of batteries or power and can be mounted anywhere.
  • Use timers on exhaust fans to minimize fan "on" time. This limits the amount of air drawn from the home minimizing the potential for depressurization while at the same time saving energy.

The End of the Story

The diagnosis of the CO alarm at our friends home was the basement bathroom exhaust fan ran for a full day and night exhausting air from the home causing the chimney to reverse and allow the products of combustion into the home (depressurization) while, at the same time the appliance was producing CO and was in need of cleaning and adjustment.

Honeywell   Honeywell

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