What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a compound created when one carbon atom and one oxygen atom combine. It is formed naturally as a result of photochemical reactions in the lower part of the earth’s atmosphere and as a result of the combustion that occurs in volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

In nature, carbon monoxide typically is a short-lived compound as it is readily converted into carbon dioxide and ozone. It can be toxic to humans and animals in large doses and can cause significant symptoms even at low rates of exposure.

Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless and produces few distinguishable physical symptoms before reaching toxic levels within the body; as a result, carbon monoxide poisoning is often overlooked or misdiagnosed, making it difficult to obtain an accurate assessment of the scale of the problem. In addition, carbon monoxide is only slightly lighter than air and easily mixes with the ambient air inside the home, making it even more difficult to pinpoint the source of carbon monoxide toxicity.

Carbon monoxide exposure

In many cases, individuals are exposed to carbon monoxide due to improper venting or faulty heating equipment within their own homes. Failure to insulate properly against car exhaust in an attached garage, cracked heat exchangers in furnaces and heaters and improper venting for generators, wood burning stoves and propane grills are among the most common causes for carbon monoxide exposure.

Homeowners may not be aware of a carbon monoxide problem until a routine maintenance or repair call brings the situation to their attention. As a result, it is likely that many mild to moderate cases of exposure go completely undetected and unreported due to the odorless and colorless nature of carbon monoxide.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide exposure results in about 500 deaths and 15,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. each year. People in weakened conditions or in ill health, elderly individuals and children are among the most vulnerable to the effects of carbon monoxide and may show signs of exposure before they are present in healthy adults.

Symptoms vary depending on the concentration of carbon monoxide in the air and the duration of exposure, but headache, dizziness and nausea are typical in the early stages. Even at slight concentrations of 35 ppm, headaches and dizziness can occur with constant exposure.

At high rates of exposure of 12,800 ppm or more, acute poisoning results within seconds and death can occur within three minutes of the time of exposure. Symptoms of moderate exposure include cardiac arrest or arrhythmia, seizures, low blood pressure, loss of consciousness and other symptoms involving the respiratory, circulatory and central nervous system. For patients who experience long term, low-grade exposure to carbon monoxide as a result of faulty equipment or venting within the home, the long-term effects can include serious neurological dysfunctions, short and long-term memory loss and depression.

Testing for carbon monoxide

Scheduling regular maintenance for furnaces, heaters and other indoor appliances can help prevent exposure to carbon monoxide. Additionally, creating an airtight barrier between attached garages and the rest of the house is essential in order to prevent deadly exhaust fumes from penetrating into the living areas of the home.

Homeowners can invest in carbon monoxide detectors that identify elevated levels of this deadly compound inside the home, but some may not detect small or short-term carbon monoxide leaks. Since concentrations as low as 100 ppm have been shown to have damaging effects on human health, more tests should be considered if carbon monoxide exposure is definitely suspected.

In most areas, one-use carbon monoxide tests are available at low cost from hardware stores and building supply outlets. These advanced testing methods can identify the presence of carbon monoxide immediately or can be left in the testing area for up to ninety days of continuous monitoring. In most cases, combining preventative measures with carbon monoxide detectors and periodic testing can give homeowners valuable peace of mind and protect their families against carbon monoxide exposure most effectively.

Many states now require approved carbon monoxide detectors for all new home construction.

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