Carbon Monoxide (CO)

1. What is Carbon Monoxide (CO)?
Where is CO found?
Should I purchase a CO detector?
How Does a CO detector work?
What Are Some Examples of CO Concentrations and Their Effects.
What is a False Alarm?
What Is the True Cost of Nuisance Alarms?
What If My Detector Alarms?

What Is Carbon Monoxide(CO)?

CO is an invisible, odorless, tasteless gas that is lighter than air. CO enters the body during the normal breathing process. Like oxygen, it collects in the lungs and combines with the red blood cells. When inhaled, CO is absorbed into the bloodstream where it interferes with the blood's ability to transport oxygen. CO is denser than oxygen and thus prevents the flow of oxygen to the heart, brain and other vital organs. In short, it can suffocate the body.

Where Is CO Found?

Outdoors, carbon monoxide (CO) is all around us, diluted by the air. Indoors it becomes concentrated, and even in small quantities can harm or kill us. Finding the source of this poison is critical so you can prevent exposure to it.

CO is usually emitted from familiar, unsuspected sources. CO comes from incomplete combustion; it can be produced from any flame-fueled device, including gas ranges, ovens, clothes dryers, gas or oil furnaces, fireplaces, charcoal grills, space heaters fueled by natural gas, propane or oils, vehicles, trucks and hot water heaters.

The most common source of CO in a home is the open flames from ovens and ranges. These appliances should never be used for heating homes. Furnaces and water heaters can be sources of CO if they are not vented properly. If they are vented properly, CO and other hot products of combustion escape to the outside through the vent.

Should I purchase a CO detector?

Not until you've considered the following:

CO detectors will give you basic help if you install one or more inside your home especially in sleeping areas and near the door that leads out to an attached garage. You may also put them in your work place and, if you have a power boat, in its sleeping cabin.

Detectors sound an alarm when a danger level in the air is reached. Customers should be aware that CO is not just in the furnace, as some would have you believe. In fact most CO fatalities are not related to equipment in the home, but to cars and trucks and other kinds of vehicles.

While we agree that carbon monoxide can be a problem in the home, its risk should not be overstated. No one should be frightened into purchasing a CO detector-- particularly if the purchase replaces a home inspection or other actions that would prevent a CO problem from developing.

How Does a CO Detector Work?

Concentrations are measured in parts of CO per million parts of oxygen. The alarm warns you to ventilate the area and to search for the poison's source. Some detectors sound alarms intermittently until the air level is safe. There is the plug in and battery run models, priced from $40.00 to $80.00. Consult the public library for published consumer reviews.

What Are Some Examples of CO Concentrations and Their Effects

Parts per Million Responses
25 Permissible exposure level, no apparent toxic symptoms.
100 No poisoning for long period. Allowable for several hours.

Should not be exposed above this level for any period of time. A possible mild frontal headache in two to three hours.

What is a False Alarm?

(Nuisance Calls and Cost to The Consumer)

In 1994, the Gas Research Institute (GRI) in Chicago, Illinois initiated a program to systematically analyze data gathered by twenty-eight suburban Chicago fire departments in response to CO alarm calls. The analysis, based on 1,300 calls, showed that:

Nearly 80 percent of the alarms were triggered at CO levels at or below nine parts per million (ppm).

Ninety-two percent of alarm calls identified CO levels less than thirty-five ppm, the maximum one-hour average outdoor concentration acceptable under federal laws.

Sixty-two percent of time spent by fire departments responding to alarm calls was to homes where CO levels measured less than ten ppm.

Also in 1994, GRI with the American Gas Association (AGA), undertook a similar study on CO detector responses by gas utilities. The data came from 37 U.S. and Canadian utilities responding to more than 14,000 CO detector calls between October 1994 and June 1995. The findings, published in February 1996, were identical to those in suburban Chicago, with about 80 percent of the alarm activations occurring at levels at or below nine ppm.

Results from this study suggest that alarm standards concerning activation levels should be changed to eliminate a large fraction of “nuisance alarms” where there is no immediate life threatening situations.

What Is the True Cost of Nuisance Alarms?

A.G.A. has further analyzed utility response data and estimates that "nuisance alarms" cost the natural gas industry more than $6 million last year, and unless changes occur, that figure could exceed $30 million annually in labor costs alone.

Separately, GRI is analyzing the cost effectiveness of currently designed CO detectors. Initial analysis shows that the public costs in increased emergency services associated with response to alarms, which low-level activations have dominated, could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. False alarms create a financial burden for response personnel and ultimately for consumers.

    How Can We Prevent Nuisance Calls? What Should the Industry Do?

    • Increase the standard’s lower alarm threshold to eliminate low-level activations, which can be caused by a variety of common occurrences.

    • Clarify manufacture requirements for marking and labeling detectors and for instructing consumers on actions that should be taken when an alarm is begun.

What If My Detector Alarms?

If your carbon monoxide (CO) detector sounds an alarm, follow the manufacturer’s instructions first. If symptoms of CO poisoning exist call 911 or the Fire Department.

If you suspect that someone in your family has the symptoms of CO poisoning or that your furnace or gas leaks CO, contact the Long Beach Energy Department at 570-2140 and ask us for an emergency check. If you feel ill, ventilate the area. Call for medical assistance from a neighbor’s home if symptoms are severe. Do not underestimate this lethal gas.

The most important step in avoiding CO problems is prevention. Customers should do all they can to avoid creating a situation where CO poisoning could occur. Only then should you consider installing a CO detector.

Remember prevention first, then detection. Make sure that your home appliances and equipment are installed, maintained and used properly and safely. That includes having an annual inspection of your heating equipment and venting by a qualified technician. Between inspections, you can do a visual inspection to look for signs of equipment problems, such as soot or water collecting near a burner or vent.