Most people are aware of the importance of having smoke detectors in their homes to warn them to “get out” in case of a fire. Unfortunately, the same level of awareness does not exist with carbon monoxide safety. The lack of knowledge by the general public about carbon monoxide – what it is, what it does, and why it is dangerous – has led to slow implementation and standardization of carbon monoxide detectors in homes, with deadly results.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 400 people die every year from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning not related to a fire; more than 20,000 people require a trip to emergency room, and more than 4,000 people are hospitalized. In 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to more than 80,000 non-fire related carbon monoxide incidents nationwide in which carbon monoxide was found, or an average of nine such calls per hour.
In the aftermath of Windstorm 2015, Spokane Valley Fire Department responded to two separate incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning that sent five Valley residents to the hospital, including an infant and mother.
So, what is it? Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a poisonous gas that occurs when certain fuels burn incompletely, including gasoline, wood, coal, natural gas, propane, oil, and methane. CO is often called “The Invisible Killer” because it is odorless, colorless, and it can build up to unsafe levels quickly in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces.
Common household sources of CO include vehicles, generators, gas ranges, ovens, furnaces, small gasoline power equipment like weed trimmers and chain saws, boat engines, gas and camp stoves, lanterns, and burning charcoal and wood. Recent research has shown that CO can even penetrate drywall at toxic levels, which is why you should never warm up your vehicle in an attached garage, or use a barbeque or generator indoors, in the garage, or in a carport.
Symptoms of low-level CO poisoning can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to the flu: headaches, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. Breathing in high levels of CO can make you pass out and eventually kill you. Senior citizens, infants, children, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions are more susceptible to CO poisoning than a healthy adult. CO poisoning can occur by exposure to a small amount of CO over a longer period of time or by a large amount of CO over a shorter amount of time. In certain conditions, CO can kill a person in a matter of a few minutes – and everyone is particularly vulnerable while sleeping – which is why early CO detection is so important.
Since January 1, 2013, Washington State law requires installation of CO alarms in all existing residences: apartments, condominiums, hotels, motels, triplexes, duplexes, and single-family units. The exception to the law is for owner-occupied single-family homes built before July 26, 2009; these units must install CO alarms at time of sale. The Spokane Valley Fire Department strongly encourages all homeowners to install CO alarms regardless of regulations. The risks are just too high.
People often believe that they don’t need a CO alarm because they already have smoke alarms in every bedroom, in the hallway, in the basement, etc. While there are some combination smoke/carbon monoxide alarm units on the market, the majority of alarms in residences, especially in older homes, are smoke alarms only. Smoke alarms work by detecting smoke particulates in the air, and are incapable of detecting CO gas.
Why not take 10 minutes right now to do a quick inventory of the alarms in your residence? If you don’t know what type of an alarm you have, twist the unit to remove it from the ceiling, and read the back. While you have it in your hand, also check for the manufacturing date: smoke alarm units expire 10 years after the date of manufacture – no matter when it was installed or when you replaced the batteries. It is important to note that smoke/CO combo units have a shorter shelf life, typically between 5-7 years.
Luckily, new technology is making home and fire safety easier. Newer models of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms now come with 10-year lithium batteries. The idea is that you never replace the batteries in the new alarms; when the battery fails or the expiration date passes (whichever comes first), you simply replace the entire unit. Additionally, newer alarm models also have a “hush” feature. Gone are the days when you need to yank the beeping alarm off of the ceiling every time you burn the toast; you simply push the hush button, which will give you 1-2 minutes of silence to turn on a fan and air out the smoke.
It only takes a few moments to perform a home safety check, but those few minutes could save your life and the lives of your loved ones. For more information, visit the Washington State Department of Health website or call us at 509-892-4153 for assistance.