I was getting caught up with a friend recently and he mentioned that he and his wife had had a bit of a scare a few days ago when their carbon monoxide detector went off. They quickly got out of the house and called the fire department who confirmed that there were elevated levels of CO in the house, particularly in the basement near their natural gas furnace and water heater.
Fortunately, no one was hurt.
A furnace guy spent three hours checking out their furnace and water heater, but he couldn’t find any problems, so the source of the carbon monoxide hasn’t been positively identified, which is a bit troubling. But they do have the carbon monoxide detector upstairs and I think they’re going to get another one for the basement.
Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas that is highly toxic. It is formed during the partial combustion of compounds that contain carbon, particularly in internal-combustion engines. Basically, it bonds with red blood cells much more readily than oxygen molecules do, which brings on a whole host of unpleasant effects up to, and including, death. If you are poisoned, chances are that you won’t realize it since one of the effects is to make you dizzy and confused.
Purging it from your system isn’t simply a matter of getting into fresh air. Because it bonds so well to red blood cells, it takes a long time to work its way out, though breathing pure oxygen can help accelerate the process. There can be long-term effects such as memory loss, confusion or even permanent brain damage.
Sadly, six people from two different families in Ontario have died in the last month due to CO poisoning and it kills 300 people in North America every year.
Carbon monoxide detectors are fairly inexpensive. Sales of them have jumped since the recent deaths. Some are AC-powered while others use batteries. Personally, I think the battery-powered devices are the better choice since they’ll continue to function in the event of a power failure. Just be sure to change the batteries regularly.
Houses in Ontario built after 2001 are required to have detectors, and there is a private member’s bill in the Ontario legislature that was introduced last week that would make it mandatory to have then in every house, regardless of age.
If you have a natural gas furnace, water heater, stove, fireplace and don’t have one, please go buy one. My friends were lucky, but they could easily have been the next two victims of carbon monoxide.
(Postscript: Ironically, as I write this there is an episode of The Simpsons that opens with the students going on a field trip in their decrepit school bus. Principal Skinner comments that he really should have the exhaust system at the back of the bus fixed because it’s leading to low test scores among the students who sit at the back.)