Carbon Monoxide Myths and Facts
Carbon monoxide is often misunderstood. Because it is
a component of smoke found from a burning fuel, people often
equate it with fire and smoke emergencies. It can be deadly
and should be respected, but it is important to understand
it and how it affects humans.
Myth #1: You can smell carbon monoxide and sometimes it
has a taste.
Fact: Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and
tasteless. Sometimes when people say they can smell it what
they are really smelling is the byproducts of the fuel that
is burning, not the CO. These fuels can also cause a taste
in some people's mouths.
Myth #2: The only time carbon monoxide exists is if
something is burning a fuel such as a fireplace, gas
appliance or heating device.
Fact: Carbon monoxide is in the air we breathe daily.
Our bodies need a certain amount of it to function and are
very good at processing what is not need out. Acceptable
levels can even be higher than normal when
our houses are closed up tight because of weather and we are
running fuel-burning appliances properly. The human body can
function normally even with slightly higher concentrations
or through short "spikes". Our bodies are made to handle
Myth #3: Carbon monoxide alarms should be installed and
maintained like smoke alarms.
Fact: While smoke rises, carbon monoxide is about the
same weight as the air we breathe so it is all around us.
That is why many CO alarms are made to plug into outlets at
floor level because it really doesn't matter at what height
in the room they are installed. Like smoke alarms, CO alarms
should be tested and vacuumed at least monthly, batteries
should be changed twice a year when you change your clocks
and they should be replaced when they become 8-10 years old.
Myth #4: Carbon monoxide alarms are notorious for giving
Fact: When they were first on the market, they were
engineered to be so sensitive that they were alarming when
no real danger existed. Fire departments made numerous calls
to homes where no emergency had ever existed. In 1996 the
standard was adjusted and this problem went away. Most of
the original alarms have been replaced with newer ones but
if you still have one you should consider replacing it
because it is close to 10 years old. We still receive calls
that show no abnormal reading when we arrive. These are not
false calls though. Usually something actually caused a
spike and by the time the fire department arrives the
problem has gone away because the occupants have opened
doors and windows.
Myth #5: Carbon monoxide emergencies and fire
emergencies are the same and should be handled in the same
Fact: A fire is something that happens quickly. Fires
double in size every 30 seconds. Carbon monoxide while it
can rise quickly (such as lighting a fire place with a
closed damper), usually it is something that happens over
time (such as a small leak in a flue). Because of that smoke
alarms are set to sound as soon as any smoke reaches them.
Carbon monoxide alarms are programmed to sound if the levels
of CO become dangerous over a set period of time. As we've
said before, our bodies can take short spikes. That is why
smoke alarms have one alarm that sounds when smoke is
present. Many CO alarms have an "alert" alarm and a
"warning" alarm. Alert usually means there may be a problem,
investigate and let some fresh air in the house. Warning
usually means there is a problem, get everyone out and call
for help. It is important for you to read the instructions
that come with your alarms and know the difference.
Myth #6: I'll be able to tell if my house has an
excessive level of carbon monoxide.
Fact: You may not be able to. Symptoms of CO poisoning
are very similar to flu symptoms. That's why having working
CO alarms on each level of your home is very important. It
could alert you to a problem that you might otherwise assume
is part of the flu season.
Install a UL listed carbon monoxide alarm on every level
of your home.
and vacuum all alarms at least monthly, keep fresh
batteries in them and replace them after 10 years.
chimneys and flues inspected annually for cracks, leaks
and the need for cleaning. Make repairs before using the
clothes dryers to the outside.
- Do not
use charcoal or gas grills indoors (including the
garage) or close to open windows or doors.
gas powered furnace and water heater inspected annually
to be sure they are burning cleanly and in good working
- Do not
operate combustion engines (automobile, lawn mower,
generator, tractors, snow blowers, etc.) in enclosed
areas (including the garage) or close to open windows or
Operate space heaters according to the manufacturer's
instructions and be sure to ventilate as recommended.
use a range or oven as a room-heating device.