What's In Your Air?

December 09, 2014

You can’t see it, smell it or taste it.  However, this silent killer can make you sick very quickly, or even kill you before you even know it’s there.  The CT Department of Public Health (CT DPH) reports that every winter, hundreds of people are taken to the emergency department because of it. Yet it is completely preventable. This silent hazard is carbon monoxide and it can poison you very fast. It is seen more often in winter because furnaces are on full action and houses are closed up. Connecticut has seen an increase in cases because of the widespread use of portable generators in our communities.

 Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include flu-like symptoms,  headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. Later symptoms can include loss of consciousness or a coma with possible death. You can actually die in your sleep before ever experiencing symptoms. You don’t want to wait for symptoms to develop. You can take actions to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from happening.

Carbon monoxide comes from the incomplete burning of carbon-based fuels.  These include gasoline, kerosene, home heating fuels, firewood, and charcoal.  Most poisonings in Connecticut have come from malfunctioning furnaces, improperly placed portable generators and the indoor use of grills. If heating devices, grills, furnaces and generators are used properly and are in good working order, you have little risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. 

 Since carbon monoxide is virtually undetectable, your best home protection plan is prevention:

  • Vent all burning devices to the outside.  Be sure dampers are working. 
  • Routine maintenance of fireplaces and chimneys.   
  • Have your furnace routinely serviced and cleaned.  Do not try to clean it yourself.  This holds true for all fuel-burning equipment.  People with expertise in equipment should perform the job. 
  • Never use charcoal grills or camping stoves inside the house, a tent, or any enclosed building, such as a garage.  Do not run snow blowers, lawn mowers, or your car inside an enclosed space. 
  • Don’t ignore a smell of fuel in your home.  This could indicate a leak. 
  • Install at least one carbon monoxide detector in your home.  It should be placed near the sleeping area of your home.  It is recommended that a second detector be placed at least 15 feet from the furnace.  Test the alarm often and replace batteries as needed. If a carbon monoxide detector sounds, get out of the house and call the fire department. 

Portable generators require special precautions.

  • Portable generators must always be used outdoors, never in a home, garage, basement, crawl space of other enclose or partially enclosed area.  It is recommended that the generator be placed at least 10 feet (CDC and the EPA) away from your doors, windows and vents as well as your neighbors.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. 
  • Burns, fires and electric shock or electrocution are also a concern with portable generators. Don’t try to connect the generator to your house yourself. Use a qualified electrician. Generators get very hot when they are working. Always turn off a generator and let it cool down before refueling it. Gas spilled on hot parts can ignite. Store fuel in approved storage cans outside your living area.

NOTE: carbon monoxide detectors are not substitutes for smoke detectors.  Each detects a different thing.  Smoke detectors cut your chances of dying in a fire nearly in half.  However, their great life-saving potential is gone if the batteries are dead.  The National Fire Protection Association recommends smoke detectors on every level of the home and outside sleeping areas; monthly testing of every smoke detector in the home; annual replacement of batteries; and replacing the whole smoke detector unit every 10 years. 

 Information on carbon monoxide poisoning and generators can be found at CT DPH, the Red Cross, and FEMA. For those District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) without access to the internet, call Quinnipiack Valley Health District for written information, 203 248-4528 or request by email, dculligan@qvhd.org