6 Big Mistakes That Increase the Risk of Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Knowing what causes CO leaks can save your life.

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Carbon monoxide can be deadly to humans and animals—and to make it worse, it has no color or odor to tip you off. On average, over 10,000 people per year are hospitalized from carbon monoxide exposure, and over 430 people die annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What Is Carbon Monoxide, Anyway?

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is created by an “incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons,” according to the CDC. To put it simply, it’s a byproduct from burning fuel. That means any machinery that burns fuel or charcoal can produce CO.

CO poisoning happens when the toxic gas is released indoors with no proper venting, allowing the gas levels to build up. Warning signs of CO poisoning include feeling disoriented, cardiac arrest, and coma.

Even small amounts of CO exposure can have effects: Side effects of mild CO exposure include flu-like symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, and headache.

Preventing CO Poisoning in Your Home

Since you can’t see or smell CO, your best bet is to prevent CO leaks from ever happening. The problem is, many people don’t realize the simple mistakes that can cause CO to build up.

MISTAKE #1: Using gasoline or charcoal devices indoors.

Obvious examples include camp stoves, generators, and charcoal grills. In 2009, the majority of CO poisoning deaths were caused by generators and heating systems, according to CDC. (Not surprisingly, most CO poisoning deaths also occur during the cold winter months and in northern states.)

MISTAKE #2: Heating your home with a gas oven.

During power outages in the winter, many homes lose their home heating systems. To stay warm, some families crank their gas oven on and leave the door open. Unfortunately, gas ovens produce carbon monoxide, and leaving it running for long periods of time can increase the amount of CO to toxic levels.

MISTAKE #3: Running the car in the garage.

It’s a big mistake to leave the car running with the garage door closed, but carbon monoxide can build up even with the door open. If your garage is attached to your home, CO can also seep into the nearby room and build up there. Once your car is inside the garage, turn it off ASAP.

MISTAKE #4: Using a fireplace without ventilation.

Proper ventilation sends any CO from your fireplace out of the home. But even if you’ve got the best venting system, be sure to have it cleaned regularly. Debris can build up in vents and chimneys that block proper airflow, resulting in CO buildup.

MISTAKE #5: Running gas-powered engines near a window or door.

You might think as long as you’re outside, CO exposure isn’t a concern. However, CO from machines can enter homes through windows and doors and build up to toxic levels. For this reason, the CDC recommends keeping gas-powered machines at least 20 feet from windows and doors.

MISTAKE #6: Not checking your CO detector regularly.

Your carbon monoxide detector is an incredible tool in your home to keep you, your family, and your pets safe. In most states, they are required in private homes, and several states also mandate CO detectors in schools and hotels.

However, it does no good if the batteries are “kaput.” One way to remember to check your CO detectors is to test them twice a year—in the fall and spring—as you’re adjusting your clocks for daylight saving time.

If you live in an apartment building, your landlord should be in charge of this. Contact them to learn when the CO detectors were last checked, as well as when to expect the next checkup.

CO poisoning is a risk you don’t want to take. Make sure everyone in your household understands the safety guidelines for preventing CO exposure.

For more home safety, here are dangerous first aid myths to stop believing.