It’s odorless, tasteless and colorless — but it claims hundreds of lives each year.
More than 5,000 people in the United States perished from carbon monoxide poisoning between 1999 and 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control. It nearly claimed a few more during a November incident in which a Grand Island family escaped their home after a carbon-monoxide build-up reached deadly levels.
But there are measures people can take to protect themselves.
“Carbon monoxide is the result of the combustion process,” said Ron Gwozdek, principal engineer for the Niagara County Department of Health. “It can be emitted from any natural gas source like a furnace, hot water tank or the stove. It’s a byproduct of the process.”
When there is a malfunction, high levels of carbon monoxide can quickly fill an enclosed space like a home. While it’s not uncommon for trace amounts of the material to be present in the air inside a building, it can be come fatal if it becomes too heavily concentrated.
Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide will manifest at first as lethargy, Gwozdek said. The longer the exposure lasts, the more severe symptoms become. While the department of health responds to one or two carbon monoxide-related incidents a month, he noted that usually only one every three months turns out to be a serious situation.
According to City of Tonawanda Fire Chief Charles Stuart, the most common causes of excessive carbon monoxide in a home are blocked or damaged parts or piping in machines that run on natural gas. Even leaving a vehicle running in a garage that is connected or adjacent to a house can be extremely dangerous.
“Two years ago, we had a family who came home from shopping and parked their car in the garage,” Stuart said. “We got a call for a carbon monoxide alarm. When we got there we couldn’t find a source, so just for the heck of it, we checked the garage. The car had been left running for five hours.”
The alarm, he said, had really saved the day. If the family had gone to bed before catching the mistake, there was a good chance they wouldn’t have woken up the next day.
Stuart noted that carbon monoxide levels are considered dangerous once they breech 35 parts per million, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Tonawanda Fire Department will evacuate a house of the levels hit 50 ppm, and if it hits 150 ppm, first responders will don breathing apparatuses before entering the building.
“What (carbon monoxide) does, is it binds with hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to all your major organs,” Stuart explained. “When it binds, it halts that process, basically suffocating you from the inside out.”
In New York state, it is the law that every residential building have a carbon monoxide detector installed. Officials agree that maintaining a functional detector is the best, if not the only way, to know when there is a problem and be able to act quickly enough to stop it.
Stuart said that detectors generally go off went the concentration of carbon monoxide gets to about 25 ppm. A detector becomes even more essential when there are children, seniors or individuals with respiratory problems in the residence, as they are susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning at a much quicker rate.
“The new carbon detectors last about seven to 10 years, but it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s requirements.” Gwozdek said. “If they have batteries, they should be changed once a year.”
Stuart said that detectors should be checked weekly to ensure they are functioning, especially during heating season.
He noted that many homes still do not have carbon monoxide detectors, despite the law. With temperatures dropping and natural gas-fueled heating mechanisms being used more often, this is the time of year when having a detector can be the most important.
“People really should have them, especially now with it getting into heating season,” he said. “You should get your furnace checked or serviced by a quality repairman. If you have something like a cracked heat exchanger, it costs a lot to replace, but the alternative is a lot worse.”
He added that most area fire departments are well suited to check into a situation if a resident feels that something might not be right in their home. “Don’t hesitate to call,” he said.
Contact reporter Mia Summerson at 693-1000, ext. 4313.