April 28, 2021 marks the beginning of Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week, a national observance week that aims to raise awareness of appliance safety. As households across the southern hemisphere prepare for the cooler months, now is the time to get your fuel burning appliances checked and tested. Winter is the deadliest time of the year when it comes to carbon monoxide poisoning, but this should come as no surprise since cold weather usually prompts the increased usage of gas appliances. So, what do you need to know to keep yourself and your family safe this winter from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning?
What is carbon monoxide?
There’s nothing like stepping into a warm house at the end of a long, cold day. Modern heating appliances have made our winters much more comfortable, but like any other appliance, they carry some risks. One of these risks is carbon monoxide poisoning.
Simply put, carbon monoxide (CO) is a by-product of combustion. The gas is produced as a result of the incomplete burning of any material that contains carbon; for example, gasoline, natural gas, propane, or even wood and charcoal (in the right conditions). Many common household appliances are capable of producing dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Gas stoves and dryers, gas and oil-fired furnaces, hot water heaters, and fireplaces are just a few of the most common culprits. We rely on our fuel burning appliances much more during the colder months, so it’s no surprise that these are the times of the year that see the highest levels of accidental carbon monoxide exposure and poisoning.
Carbon monoxide poisoning happens when carbon monoxide is inhaled. If you’re lucky, it will make you sick. If you’re unlucky, it will kill you. When you breathe in carbon monoxide, the gas enters your bloodstream and hinders your blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen. Eventually, if not treated, this lack of oxygen will cause your body’s cells and tissue to fail and die. A tension-type headache is the most common symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning, followed by dizziness, stomach pain, nausea, and tiredness.
Normally, the small amounts of carbon monoxide released by gas appliances in the home are vented outside. However, if there’s a leak or inadequate ventilation in the area, carbon monoxide can and will build up to dangerous levels.
What does carbon monoxide smell like?
The reason why carbon monoxide is called the ‘silent killer’ is because it has no distinct smell or taste. It sneaks up on you without warning, making it a particularly sinister and dangerous risk. You won’t be able to tell when you’re inhaling it and more than that, the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be mistaken for a common cold. That’s why it’s important to understand where carbon monoxide leaks can come from and to take all the precautions necessary to protect yourself and others from carbon monoxide poisoning. Remember, carbon monoxide doesn’t have a smell, taste, or colour, so you won’t be able to rely on your senses for detection.
How can I test my home for carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is dangerous because it doesn’t carry any distinct scent or taste. This means that accidental carbon monoxide exposure is much more common than you might think. So, how can you tell if there is a carbon monoxide leak in your house? Well, the answer’s simple: you can check for leaks by getting your gas appliances tested by a qualified professional. If you don’t regularly test your gas appliances, there’s simply no way of knowing whether or not your appliances are safe for use.
It’s recommended that property owners get their fuel burning appliances (especially their open-flued gas heaters) tested for carbon monoxide leaks at least once every two years by a qualified professional. It’s also recommended that homeowners install carbon monoxide detectors and alarms in their home as a backup measure.
These days, carbon monoxide detectors and alarms are fairly inexpensive, so it’s a small price to pay for a potentially life saving piece of equipment. It’s important to note that carbon monoxide alarms only detect carbon monoxide gas, so don’t start using them as a replacement for your smoke alarms. However, like smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and alarms only work if they’re used correctly, so be sure to follow issuer instructions and to replace batteries every 6 months.
What else can I do to protect my home?
The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning. If you’ve taken the proper precautions, the likelihood of being harmed by carbon monoxide is actually pretty low. As mentioned earlier, the two most important things to do are to have your gas appliances tested at least once every two years by a qualified professional, and to install carbon monoxide alarms in your home.
To complement these two measures, here are some other things you can do to prevent accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from occurring inside your home:
- Refrain from leaving your gas heater on overnight or for extensive periods of time;
- Replace your old heaters and gas appliances;
- Never bring portable outdoor gas appliances indoors;
- Ensure that your gas appliances have adequate ventilation;
- If you have a chimney, ensure that your chimney is being cleaned at least once a year (a blocked chimney can cause a carbon monoxide buildup in the home);
- Never use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage.
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