Should I Invest in a Carbon Monoxide Detector for My Home?

Most of us are aware of the need for smoke detectors to warn us of smoke in our homes, caused by flames or smoldering fires. Smoke detectors save lives. In many places the use of them is mandated; you can’t build or rent out a house or apartment that doesn’t have one.

But when you think about it, smoke is fairly easy to detect; it’s visible, and you can smell it. But if there existed a poisonous gas that was colorless, odorless, and tasteless, would you know it was there? What if that invisible menace was so common that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over 15,000 people are treated in emergency rooms every year for non-fire-related carbon monoxide poisoning, and 500 of them die? Carbon monoxide (CO) is called the “silent killer” by fire departments, emergency services, and doctors because victims affected by it in most cases never knew that they were being poisoned.

What is carbon monoxide and what causes it?

Fuel that is not completely burned produces carbon monoxide. Anything that burns gas-based, oil-based, or other liquid or solid fuels (including firewood and charcoal) can produce CO. This includes the ovens, furnaces, gas or water heaters, fireplaces, generators, barbeques or camp stoves in or around your home, and even includes your car or lawn mower, if you leave them running in your garage or near the house. You may have a buildup of carbon monoxide in your home as you read this, and if so, would you know it?

What can I do to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Many cases of CO poisoning or death are preventable, because they occur as the result of consumer devices in the home that had been improperly installed or badly maintained. These risks could have been eliminated by having all of the appliances serviced regularly by competent technicians. Almost all of these poisonings or deaths could have been avoided if the homes in question had installed a carbon monoxide detector. This “ounce of prevention” typically costs between twenty and thirty dollars.

Considering their low cost, most health and safety experts recommend carbon monoxide detectors, and consider them a wise investment in your family’s safety. Carbon monoxide detectors – available at almost all hardware stores – don’t just measure the levels of CO in the air in “real time,” they measure it over a period of time, to make sure that levels of the gas are not building up. When such a buildup is detected, an alarm is sounded, before they reach levels that could pose a danger to you and your family. Regular smoke detectors cannot do this; they measure only the particles of smoke in the air, not carbon monoxide.

How and where should I install a CO detector?

If you decide to invest in a carbon monoxide detectors for your home, you might want to look over the Environment Protection Agency’s guidelines at http://www.epa.gov/iaq/co.html. Guidelines published by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission recommend that for maximum safety you should install one detector in the hallway outside each of the sleeping areas of your house. You should not install CO detectors in kitchens, above fuel-burning appliances, or near heating units or vents, as this may lead to false positive readings.

The detectors themselves should be properly installed, either by professionals or, if you do it yourself, by stringently following all of the manufacturer’s instructions. CO detectors may be “hard wired” (meaning connected through the walls to your home’s electrical network), or they can be plugged in to a standard electrical outlet, or be powered by batteries. Even the hard-wired detectors should have a battery backup, however, to protect you if the power goes out.

What should I do if the carbon monoxide detector goes off?

If your CO detector sounds an alarm, evacuate your home immediately and call 911. Remember that carbon monoxide itself is colorless, odorless, and tasteless – searching the house trying to find out where the buildup of the gas is coming from is usually a waste of time, and may expose you to CO poisoning while you’re looking. Call professionals to test the air in your house later, with you and your family safely out of harm’s reach. If you or any member of your family feels light-headed, dizzy, or nauseous, you should seek immediate medical attention.



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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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