It’s sometimes called the invisible killer. In the home, carbon monoxide (CO) is responsible for over 400 accidental poisoning deaths per year. Would you recognize the signs of a leak? Follow these tips to help keep you and your family out of harm’s way.

What is carbon monoxide?

It’s odorless, tasteless, and can pose a serious health risk. This simple molecule made up of one carbon atom and one oxygen atom is a common byproduct of combustion and highly toxic to animals and humans.

Carbon monoxide exists in low concentrations throughout the atmosphere due to volcanoes, fires, and industry, but in enclosed spaces equipped with combustion equipment, those concentrations can rapidly rise. Carbon monoxide can be introduced in the home through defective or improperly installed or maintained furnaces, boilers, water heaters, stoves, or chimneys.

In the United States, thousands seek medical attention for poisoning every year and hundreds die. Fortunately, there are simple ways to protect yourself and your family from this common danger.

Know the warning signs

When high concentrations of carbon monoxide are inhaled, the body is robbed of oxygen as the CO bonds to hemoglobin (the oxygen carrier in our red blood cells). Depending on the dosage, exposure may lead to dizziness, weakness, confusion, nausea, and headache. Prolonged exposure can cause vomiting, fainting, seizure, and death. The symptoms are sometimes mistaken for food poisoning or the flu.

Protect yourself from CO

The only reliable way to know if carbon monoxide is present in your home is to install a working CO alarm. More than half of U.S. states have passed laws requiring CO alarms to be installed in dwellings, and many other local building codes require them to be installed in new or remodeled homes. Check with your local jurisdiction to find out the requirements in your area.

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CO alarms are commonly required outside each sleeping room, on each level of a home, and in homes containing any gas appliances, fireplaces, or an attached garage. If possible, don’t place a CO alarm too close to a combustion appliance, window, or door, or in areas where they will be obstructed. Always consult manufacturer’s recommendations for installation details.

Follow these additional tips to keep yourself safe from CO:

  • Install CO alarms where required and test them regularly. Replace alarms and alarm batteries as indicated by the manufacturer.
  • Never use portable gas appliances (like camping stoves) or gas or charcoal grills indoors.
  • Have your heating system, vents, and chimney inspected annually by a qualified professional.
  • Never leave a car or gas-powered tool running in the garage.
  • If you think you’ve suffered CO poisoning, consult a doctor immediately.

The alarm went off. Now what?

If your CO alarm goes off, don’t ignore it! Make sure everyone inside the house is accounted for and get them to safety (outside and into fresh air) immediately. Once outside, call your local fire department and wait for emergency personnel to arrive.

Be aware: CO alarms only detect carbon monoxide. A CO alarm will not detect a gas leak or smoke from a fire. Make sure to also install working smoke alarms, and if you smell gas, call 911 and your local utility immediately.

Still thinking about the safety of your home? Good. Make sure you and yours are protected. Get a free homeowners quote today!

Safe and smart | Home safety

about Rebecca

Rebecca is a freelance copywriter and editor living in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two kids. She enjoys productively channeling her anxiety into safety-minded articles for home and garden, running with her robot trainer, and advocating on behalf of the Oxford comma.