Beware of carbon monoxide, CO, from burning fossil fuels this winter
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, invisible, tasteless, non-irritating gas, that, as it poisons people, is often attributed to the flu or food poisoning. According to Dr. Tom Greiner, one of the leading experts on carbon monoxide poisoning, every year up to 4,000 people die and 5,000 are injured by the deadly gas.
Carbon dioxide is a by-product of combustion, and is present when fuel is burned. It is produced by natural gas, oil, wood, kerosene, and automobile gasoline as they burn. Whenever these fuels are burned in a tightly closed, unvented space, the result is a build-up of carbon monoxide in the air.
Dr. Greiner's suggestions for reducing the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning this winter:
Install carbon monoxide detectors and be sure they are working properly. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends at least one, near the sleeping areas of the home, but placing one on each level of your home and in each bedroom is a safer choice. To learn more about carbon monoxide detectors, visit carbon monoxide detector article. According to Greiner, every home needs carbon monoxide detectors except those with all electric appliances and that also do not have an attached garage.
If you have a gas furnace and/or water heater, be sure that they are serviced each fall. He notes that newer gas appliances are safer than old ones, because they have increased safety valves, better ventilation features, and sealed combustion. However, since electric appliances do not produce any carbon monoxide, they are even safer.
Be aware that even if you have an electric range, there is still one feature that can produce enough carbon monoxide to be of concern: the self-cleaning oven. As the spilled food is burned in the clean cycle, carbon monoxide is produced. His suggestion: following the manufacturer's instructions, remove as much of the charred food as possible before running the clean cycle. Frequent cleanings of smaller amounts of food will also produce less carbon monoxide. Turning on exhaust fans and opening windows during the clean cycle will help dissipate any carbon monoxide.
Gas kitchen ranges are often left unvented to the outside, even though safety recommendations require such venting. This means that there is a potential problem with gas ranges causing high carbon monoxide levels in the home. However, even if your gas range is properly vented, he stresses that it is never, ever safe to heat your home with gas from the range.
An attached garage poses another way for carbon monoxide to enter your home. [Dr. Greiner] explains that when your car is first turned on, the catalytic converter is not functioning properly and the car engine runs rich. This causes an intense concentration of carbon monoxide to spew from the exhaust pipes. Starting your car, and especially warming it up in the garage, allows enormous quantities of carbon monoxide to seep into your home, where it remains for many hours. Find out more, including a study Greiner conducted at an Iowa home, at ISU Extension case studies.
Small engines, such as those on generators and power washers, can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. According to Greiner, "Automobiles warm up and produce less carbon monoxide as they run longer. Small engines don't have a catalytic converter, so they never stop producing those large amounts of the gas." He says it is possible to be overcome while cleaning out a farrowing house or other out buildings while running a small engine. "Most people who get a headache while working around a generator think it's because of the noise of the engine. That may be the case, but it's equally possible that they are being poisoned by carbon monoxide. He notes that after several deaths, including a 1993 Iowa death of a 33-year-old farm owner who was using an 11-horsepower, gasoline-powered pressure washer to clean his swine-farrowing barn, NIOSH and several other agencies issued an alert warning to not use equipment and tools powered by gasoline engines inside buildings, even those with high ventilation rates. Gasoline engines should be used outdoors and away from air intakes. Find more detail at CDC.
For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning, check out:
IAQ fact sheet from the Environmental Health Center
the CO danger and what to do in case of an emergency
Home Energy magazine article authored by Dr. Greiner. Included are three case studies where he helped various installation, venting, and maintenance problems for homeowners who were being poisoned by carbon monoxide.
Charcoal grills and carbon monoxide
Case studies and recommendations by Dr. Greiner
For more information on replacing your older gas furnace, water heater, or range with an energy-efficient electric model, contact your electric cooperative. Contact information is on the left side of this page.