Carbon monoxide: Guard against the silent killer

Chicago TribuneMarch 17, 2012 

Carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer. This odorless, colorless, tasteless gas claims about 300 lives a year and is the No. 1 cause of poisoning deaths in the nation, according to the National Fire Protection Association. If you haven’t tested your CO detectors in a while, it may be time for a replacement.

“Three years is usually the end of life for these things,” said Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis. “I also suggest testing them monthly.”

CO detectors made since 2009 may make a warning sound when nearing the end of their lives. But the sounds can be be mistaken for a warning that the battery is low.

“When your detector goes off because there is carbon monoxide in the home, that noise is pretty shrill,” he said. “But the noise it makes when it’s near the end of life is similar to the sound you hear when your fire alarm battery is low – frequent beeps.” Models made before 2009 should be disposed of.

Carbon monoxide can be produced by gas or oil appliances such as clothing dryers, water heaters, furnaces, ovens and space heaters.Even fireplaces can be a danger if not cleaned frequently.

“If you have a regular fireplace, you need to (check) on the chimneys,” he said. “If they get blocked they will bump carbon monoxide back into your house.”

Here are some more tips to keep your home safe:

Have a detector on every floor of your home: They should be close to your sleeping rooms. Install them too close to the kitchen and you might have inadvertent alarms, especially if you cook with gas.

Don’t put one too close to your furnace: Most of the failures are from blocked furnaces and blocked furnace flues but don’t put one right next to your furnace, in your garage or in your kitchen. Because CO doesn’t gravitate to the ceiling like smoke does, you can have the detectors in your outlets. Just have a battery in there, too, in case you lose power. The detectors that plug into your outlet with a backup battery run between $20 and $40.

Watch for flu-like symptoms: If everybody in the house is suddenly sick and you don’t have a carbon-monoxide detector, CO could be causing your symptoms.

If the detector sounds, evacuate: Get everyone out of the house immediately and call the fire department or the gas company, and they’ll bring in a handheld detector to check for CO. “You don’t want to take this lightly. If the alarm sounds, get out. Period.”

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