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Another Year, Another 500+ Needless Deaths From CO Poisoning

Across North America, over 500 people die needlessly each year from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in their homes. This could understate the problem. Researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, estimate the number of deaths to exceed 2000. These are not statistics. They are husbands, fathers, mothers, wives, sons, and daughters. They are families, like yours and mine. Open your Internet browser and search for news stores about carbon monoxide poisoning. The number of stories is surprising. Fortunately, most stories do not result in the ultimate tragedy. While somewhere between 500 to more than 2000 people die from CO poisoning each year, as many 40,000 are admitted to an emergency room according to a study reported in the Journal of Emergency Medicine.

Improper Venting
After a poorly vented water heater resulted in the evacuation of an Idaho Falls, Idaho apartment complex Fire Chief, Rick Taylor warned, “It’s not something that you’re aware of. You don’t smell CO and your body takes it in more readily than it does oxygen.”

Taylor noted that by the time people become aware of CO through headaches and nausea, they’ve already absorbed more CO than anyone would want. “You want to have your stuff checked,” advised Taylor. “If you haven’t had your gas operated furnace and water heater checked in a number of years, call and have them checked by a professional to make sure you don’t have any leaks.” We recommend annual checks.

Are CO Leaks Common?
Fortunately leaks are not common. Still, furnace heat sections can crack over time. Flue pipes, which exhaust CO outside of your home can become pitted over time from corrosive condensation if not installed correctly. Flue pipes can also become disconnected. A couple of years ago, Jason Saunders thought he was buying a smoke alarm for his California home. He bought a carbon monoxide detector by mistake. It saved his family. The Saunders had recently had their air conditioning ducts cleaned to make the home healthier for their twin toddlers. The duct cleaning company disconnected the flue and did a poor job reconnecting it to the furnace. Carbon monoxide built up and seeped into the bedrooms. The CO detector sounded an alarm in the night. The family was disoriented. Jason’s mother-in-law called emergency services. Jason, his wife, the children, and his mother-in-law were rushed to the hospital. The fire captain later noted that the carbon monoxide levels were 118 parts per million, more than three times the 35 parts per million level where firefighters were required to wear protective gear. A few minutes later and the Saunders family would not have survived. The lessons are to buy more than one carbon monoxide detector and only allow licensed contractors to work on combustion appliances. Many duct cleaning companies lack the licensing needed to install or service a furnace or water heater and lack the knowledge to work around combustion appliances safely as the Saunders discovered.

Unlicensed Contracting Can Kill
Do not try to save money with unlicensed contractors. In Maine, eight people were sent to the hospital a few weeks ago when an unlicensed contactor improperly installed a new furnace. Three of the eight people had to be treated in hyperbaric chambers. The treatment for one lasted nearly a week. Since the contractor was unlicensed, he couldn’t permit the job. Permitting would have led to an inspection, which possibly could have uncovered the installation problem before people had to be hospitalized. The consequence to the contractor was minimal. He nearly killed people, but was only required to pay a $970 fine and plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “unlicensed practice.”

Backdrafting Risks
As air is exhausted from our homes through bathroom vents, dryers, kitchen range hoods, and fireplaces, it may depressurize the building, resulting in backdrafting. The pressure differential (sometimes aided by the wind) can overpower the ventilation system, pulling exhaust air down the vent pipes, into the home. This is a dangerous situation that can result in CO poisoning. Tight home construction has made this problem worse. The best prevention is to install today’s highest efficiency furnaces and water heaters, which feature power ventilation systems.

Problems You Can Cause
Some CO poisoning results from consumer actions. When a Calgary, Alberta couple left the car running in an attached garage, it cost their lives. Eight rescue workers and the couple’s son were sent to the hospital after showing signs of CO poisoning, after entering the home. Do not leave a car running in a garage. Do not burn a gas light or stove inside your home. Do not run a generator inside your home. And please, install more than one CO detector, replacing the batteries annually!