Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of poisoning deaths in the U.S. and is harmful even in concentrations that are not fatal. Carbon monoxide accumulates in the blood, causing symptoms such as headache, fatigue, nausea, confusion, vomiting, loss of consciousness, brain damage and eventually death. Properly maintaining the equipment in your home that produces carbon monoxide is one of the most important ways to prevent it from causing illness.
Sources of Carbon Monoxide in the Home
Carbon monoxide results from combustion, so any equipment or appliance in your home that burns fuel, such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal is a source of carbon monoxide. Examples are gas and oil furnaces, pellet and wood-burning stoves, gas dryers, gas hot water heaters, charcoal or gas grills, gas or propane stoves, gas refrigerators, space heaters and gas fireplaces. You can assume that any appliance that does not run simply by plugging it into an electrical socket produces carbon monoxide. A gas furnace or other appliance produces a little carbon monoxide even when it's running perfectly. That carbon dioxide is usually carried to the outdoors by the furnace's venting system.
Properly Maintaining a Gas Furnace
Gas furnaces produce much more carbon monoxide if they are dirty or running inefficiently. Incomplete combustion produces more carbon monoxide that efficient combustion. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless; it can cause great harm to humans when you don't even know it's there.
Keeping Your Gas Furnace Safe
A few routine maintenance steps will help keep your gas furnace running efficiently. First, have your furnace checked and cleaned once a year by a professional who can spot problems before they become dangerous. Second, change the filter of the furnace regularly (according to instructions in the owner's manual). Third, always run your gas furnace according to the operating instructions in your manual. Fourth, if you have an older gas furnace with a pilot light, turn off the gas if the pilot light goes out. Finally, buy and install a CO detector outside of every sleeping area in your house. If you can afford to, buy and install a hardwired detector with a battery backup.
If You Suspect Carbon Monoxide Is Escaping
Locate all family members and ensure they are not experiencing any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. If anyone is getting sick, go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately. Open all of the windows and doors of your home. Family members most vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning include fetuses, infants, elderly people and people who are anemic or who have heart or respiratory disease. Turn off the gas furnace and any other appliances that burn fuel. Call in a professional to inspect and repair your appliances.
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