Making Some Noise About the Silent Killer: Carbon Monoxide


Making Some Noise About the Silent Killer: Carbon Monoxide

aptsherpa · Jan 11, 2006

Carbon monoxide, or the “silent killer,” is a colorless, tasteless, mostly odorless, and poisonous gas that results from the incomplete oxidation of oxygen in combustion, often due to insufficient supply of oxygen for burning. Improperly ventilated or leaking appliances that burn fuel can be sources of carbon monoxide gas, as can older or heavily used appliances that no longer burn fuel properly.

When breathed in large quantities, carbon monoxide can interfere with the ability of blood to distribute oxygen throughout the body, especially to the heart. Carbon monoxide inhalation can negatively affect coordination and heart conditions, as well as cause fatigue, headache, weakness, confusion, disorientation, shortness of breath, blurred vision, body aches, nausea, and dizziness. Exceptionally high levels of carbon monoxide can be fatal. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can resemble flu symptoms, and some who suffer carbon monoxide poisoning can go undiagnosed even by their doctors. Moreover, most instances of carbon monoxide poisoning occur at night. And finally, the smaller and less well-ventilated a living area is, the easier it is for carbon monoxide to build up to dangerous levels. For all these reasons and more, a carbon monoxide detector is a great piece of safety equipment for your apartment

Those especially susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning include the very young, the elderly, and people with cardiac conditions. Pets can also be severely affected by carbon monoxide and should be watched carefully for strange behaviors suggesting illness. An average of nearly 500 people have died annually from carbon monoxide poisoning in recent years, and tens of thousands more are hospitalized because of it. Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning isn’t difficult, but it does require attention to detail and diligent monitoring of carbon monoxide levels in your living space.

The most important step to take in preventing carbon monoxide poisoning is having your fuel-burning appliances inspected regularly by professionals certified by the Professional Service Association or another respected group. Having professionals install appliances is also important, as improperly installed items can potentially leak enough carbon monoxide to create notable amounts of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide levels above 70 parts per million can produce the dangerous effects described above. Potentially hazardous appliances or other home features include space heaters, water heaters, fireplaces, stoves, ovens, wood-burning stoves, and any other gas- or fuel-burning appliances. Charcoal and gas grills are also significant sources of carbon dioxide and as such should never be used indoors. Because such low levels can influence your health, it’s important to ensure that your home is not only properly inspected by also properly ventilated. An inspection of your chimney is particularly important when fall rolls around in order to verify that your flue is in working condition and hasn’t become blocked by debris since last winter.

You definitely don’t have to be in charge of arranging inspections or appliance service: you should always contact your landlord regarding inspections or service that you feel might be necessary. If your landlord is hesitant to arrange for appropriate service, contact your local health department about your concerns. The city of Chicago requires landlords to provide carbon monoxide detectors for apartments, and your city may have local regulations as well. If your landlord remains unresponsive, you may wish to get a carbon monoxide detector anyway—better safe than sorry.

Monitoring the flame color of your appliances is a good safety check you can make on your own. If the flame on your stove is orange, you definitely have a problem with carbon monoxide that needs to be addressed immediately. If it’s blue, you may or may not have a problem—again, getting your appliances checked regularly by a professional is important. Beyond noting your flame color, you can check other indicators of the presence of carbon monoxide like streaks of carbon or soot around the service door of your fuel-burning appliances; the absence of a draft in your chimney; excessive rusting on flue pipes or appliance jackets; moisture collecting on the windows and walls of furnace rooms; fallen soot from the fireplace; small amounts of water leaking from the base of the chimney, vent or flue pipe; damaged or discolored bricks at the top of your chimney, and rust on the portion of the vent pipe visible from outside your home. As noted, a chimney inspection (if you have a fireplace) is definitely crucial for ensuring safe levels of carbon monoxide in your apartment.

Cars are also major producers of carbon monoxide. For this reason, you should never run or warm up a car in an attached garage, as the fumes may be able to seep into your house and build up to dangerous levels. This may not always be a major concern for apartment dwellers, but if you live near or above a garage or other major parking setup in your apartment area, you probably want to give a carbon monoxide detector serious consideration.

Natural gas appliances, while more environmentally friendly due to generally lower emissions levels, can also give off excessive amounts of carbon monoxide. As such, they need to be inspected with the utmost care and on a very regular basis.

Other carbon-monoxide-preventing safety steps include using a ventilation hood when cooking on your gas stove, maintaining appropriate home ventilation, hiring a professional to service gas-burning appliances (rather than doing it yourself and possibly making a life-threatening mistake), and always using your appliances per the manufacturer’s instructions.

Once your preliminary inspections are taken care of and any potentially serious leaks are repaired, you should look into getting a carbon monoxide detector to alert you of potential new problems before they develop into serious issues.

There are several varieties of carbon monoxide detectors. Carbon monoxide detectors work by monitoring levels of carbon monoxide over time using a chemical that reacts with carbon monoxide. When the carbon monoxide reaches a certain level, the chemical reaction triggers the alarm to go off. Carbon monoxide detectors need to be connected to a power supply (electric or battery) to function, and they may need regular replacing as the chemical inside can age. Always check your carbon monoxide detector on a regular basis.

The most important features to look for in a detector include a warning light to indicate low battery levels, a test button to make sure the alarm’s signal is working, a button to silence the alarm when you’ve recognized that it’s gone off, and an automatic shutoff feature that turns off the alarm when fresh air has cleared the area of dangerous levels. This last feature is a helpful way to tell whether or not your detector is working properly. If it sounds an alarm and continues to do so when you move the detector (assuming it’s a battery-operated model) outside, you’ll be able to tell that the detector is faulty and needs replacing. Detectors should also be UL certified to ensure compliance with safety standards. You can check out a consumer guide to carbon monoxide detectors to learn more about different models.

Once you’ve chosen your detector, you’ll need to decide where to install it. Since carbon monoxide can mix (and rise) with heated air from a home heating system, it’s often recommended to place your carbon monoxide detector near the ceiling. Eye level or above, but not within six inches of the ceiling, is the generally recommended placement for carbon monoxide detectors.

Putting a carbon monoxide detector near kitchen appliances is not recommended, since doing so may cause false alarms. This is because such appliances can emit carbon monoxide fumes when starting up. Placing the detector by near fuel burning appliance can create the potential for false alarms. The best location for a carbon monoxide detector is in sleeping areas. If possible, a separate detector for each bedroom is ideal. And don’t forget about your pets—they are extra susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning, so if they don’t sleep with you, consider placing a detector near their chosen sleeping area. This is especially important if they like to snooze in the kitchen or near other gas appliances that could potentially cause carbon monoxide buildup. It might seem a little extreme, but you’re always better safe than sorry.

Properly installing a carbon monoxide detector is crucial in ensuring that it will function as expected to keep you and your apartment-mates safe. Follow the directions that accompany the detector in order to install it. If you don’t have electrical knowledge or certification, you’ll want to get a battery-operated model that doesn’t require you to connect the detector with your electric system. If you don’t have the necessary tools or skill to wire your detector, or if you’re just not comfortable installing your battery-operated detector, consider hiring a professional to do the job. It’s no use having a detector that’s improperly installed and won’t work to keep you safe. Having an improperly installed detector is actually worse than not having one at all, as its presence can lull you into a false sense of security.

Now that you’ve successfully selected and installed your carbon monoxide detector, you’ll need to know what to do if it should go off. Unless someone in your apartment feels ill as a result of the carbon monoxide—in which case you should take that individual to get medical treatment as soon as possible—your initial reaction should be to ventilate the area. Open windows and doors, and turn on fans if possible. You should then vacate the premises and get yourself and your family (and pets!) to an area with fresher air. Not ventilating the area will only make the problem worse. Don’t return to your apartment until the alarm stops sounding, indicating that the area has been safely ventilated. Look into having a technician inspect your appliances after your carbon monoxide detector goes off to prevent further carbon monoxide problems in the future.

With the combination of regular inspection and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances and a properly installed and maintained carbon monoxide detector, you can rest easy at night knowing the silent killer isn’t making noise in the back of your mind.

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