Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas that is odorless, colorless, tasteless, and non-irritating. It is formed by the incomplete combustion of almost any material, but particularly hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline, kerosene, coal, propane, natural gas, wood, charcoal, diesel fuel and heating oil. When CO is inhaled, it combines with the body's blood and prevents it from absorbing oxygen. A person exposed to high levels of CO may complain of dizziness, headache, nausea, sleepiness or other flu like symptoms without fever. Stationary vehicles are the most common cause of CO poisoning, while natural gas appliances account for a small percentage of all CO poisonings. The primary cause of CO problems with respect to natural gas appliances is space heating equipment in which vents and chimneys are not properly installed or maintained. Other causes include misuse of appliances such as improper use of ranges and ovens for space heating.
Preventing Exposure to Carbon Monoxide
In order to avoid exposure to carbon monoxide, take the following steps:
- Do not operate gasoline-powered motors or use charcoal grills in enclosed spaces such as an attached garage.
- Provide adequate ventilation in your home when using a wood stove or fireplace, and be sure it is in good working condition.
- Be certain that all flame-producing appliances are properly installed, adjusted and operated. Check vented appliances periodically to be sure that the vent pipe has a proper rise and is not blocked by bird nests or other debris. The vent pipe should have an approved vent cap securely attached at the end.
- Special care must be taken with gas space heaters because many are installed unvented. It is especially important to make sure than an adequate supply of fresh air is available to ensure proper combustion. Proper combustion is normally indicated by the presence of a clear, blue flame. A small amount of yellow or orange is normal and is caused by flecks of dust in the air.
- Carbon monoxide detectors are commercially available and are relatively inexpensive. The best precaution, however, is to have an annual inspection of your home heating system and other natural gas equipment by a qualified professional.
Frequently Asked Questions: Safety Information