Carbon Monoxide Risks in the Winter
Over the winter months, carbon monoxide poisoning and deaths spike in Minnesota. While many people often have fire detectors or smoke alarms in their homes, a staggering amount of people rarely concern themselves with installing a carbon monoxide detector.
And yet, According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) every year, approximately 430 people die and 50,000 people end up in emergency due to carbon monoxide poisoning. In Minnesota alone, there were around 14 carbon monoxide related deaths.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is sometimes confused with carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide is also a gas, it naturally occurs in the atmosphere. Humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. While large amounts of carbon dioxide aren’t good for humans either, carbon monoxide does not naturally occur in the atmosphere and can cause severe health problems even at low concentrations.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas. It has no detectable odor, taste, or color, which is why it can be so dangerous. You can inhale carbon monoxide and, due to its tasteless, odorless, and colorless properties, never know you are breathing it in.
Carbon monoxide is harmful when inhaled because it displaces oxygen in the blood, depriving our vital organs (including our heart and lungs) of oxygen. Large amounts of carbon monoxide can kill within minutes without warning. Victims quickly lose consciousness and suffocate.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning
Often, if carbon monoxide is building in the home, it builds up over time, and victims typically get warning signs, or symptoms, of carbon monoxide poisoning. These may include:
- Fatigue or drowsiness
- Sudden chest pains for people suffering from angina
Many of the symptoms may seem like early symptoms of the cold and flu, which are also typical winter illnesses. For this reason, early signs of carbon monoxide often go untreated. During prolonged or high carbon monoxide exposure, symptoms become more severe and may include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Muscle weakness
Symptoms vary widely from person to person. Symptoms may also occur sooner in those most susceptible to environmental changes, including young children, the elderly, or individuals with lung or heart disease. Carbon monoxide poses an especially grave risk to fetuses.
If caught in time, carbon monoxide poisoning is reversible, and victims of poisoning can recover. Acute poisoning, however, may result in severe damage to various parts of the body (specifically the heart and brain) due to the deprivation of oxygen over an extended period.
What causes carbon monoxide build up in homes
There are many causes of household carbon monoxide buildup. Household appliances such as gas fires, boilers, heating systems, and open fires that use gas, oil, coal, or wood are often the culprits.
A car left running in a small space (such as a garage) can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
Blocked flues or chimneys may also add to the rise of carbon monoxide. Even fumes from specific paint removers or cleansing fluids can cause poisoning within the home.
Winter often exasperates carbon monoxide buildup because, unlike in the milder months, windows and doors are more likely to be sealed shut, effectively trapping the gas inside and allowing it to build over time.
With Minnesota being an unusually cold state, and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning being high over the winter months, it’s important for households to install and maintain a carbon monoxide detector.
Carbon monoxide detector requirements for Minnesota homes
In Minnesota, all new homes and existing single-family and multi-unit homes have carbon monoxide alarms. Under statute 299F.51:
- The owner is required to have a home equipped with one or more approved carbon monoxide alarms and must:
- Provide and install one alarm within ten feet of each room lawfully used for sleeping and
- Replace any alarm system that has been stolen, removed, missing, or rendered inoperable during a prior occupancy
- The occupant of each dwelling must:
- Keep and maintain the device in good repair
- Replace any device that has been stolen, removed, missing, or rendered inoperable during occupancy
It is also an offense to remove or render inoperable any required carbon monoxide alarm.
Note that, because the requirements for carbon monoxide alarms are statutes and not a rule, the requirements for alarms may not be enforced by building officials.
How to install a carbon monoxide detector in your home
It’s essential to have enough carbon monoxide detectors in your home to cover all levels, including the basement and attic.
In Minnesota, carbon monoxide detectors must be:
- hardwired into the electrical system, or
- directly plugged into an electrical outlet without a switch, or
- battery powered.
Place a carbon monoxide sensor near each bedroom, on each floor, and anywhere else required by local laws and according to the detector’s instructions.
How to maintain your detector
It’s crucial to maintain your carbon monoxide detector to keep it in good working order. Carbon monoxide sensors should be cleared of debris every six months or so. If they are battery-powered, batteries should also be changed twice a year.
To clean your carbon monoxide sensor:
- Wipe down the outside of the detector with a soft cloth to remove dust or debris from the area around the sensor
- Use the soft brush attachment on your vacuum cleaner and gently vacuum the detector
- Spray around the area with a canned air duster to remove any remaining debris
It’s also important to replace your carbon monoxide detector every five to seven years to ensure that you will always have a unit that is in proper working order installed in your home.
What to do if your detector goes off
Your carbon monoxide alarm will go off only when it detects a high buildup of carbon monoxide in your home. The effects of carbon monoxide start being felt in humans when the buildup is at about 50ppm, so it’s vital to ensure your carbon monoxide alarm will detect any buildup before it reaches this level in the home.
If your alarm does go off:
- Don’t panic
- Gather everyone in the home and move outside for fresh air
- If you can, open all windows and air out your home before heading outside
- Check everyone for flu-like symptoms that may suggest poisoning. If anyone does appear ill, call 9-1-1 immediately.
- Do not re-enter your home until the alarm stops and/or the home has been cleared by the proper authorities
- Contact a professional to evaluate fuel-burning appliances and other carbon monoxide sources to prevent further incidents
Carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious condition. If you fear you may be experiencing carbon monoxide, it’s essential to see a doctor and to get your home cleared as soon as possible. Long term exposure can be dangerous and deadly. That’s why it’s important if you haven’t already, to install a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Detectors are affordable and readily available at major home improvement and department stores and doing so may save your life or the life of those you love.
If you’ve suffered a carbon monoxide poisoning from shoddy craftsmanship or defective products, you may be eligible for compensation. SiebenCarey is here to help.