Understanding Fire Key to Avoiding Carbon Monoxide Disasters
Avoiding carbon monoxide disasters from storms requires an understanding of the principles of fire: adequate oxygen is needed for the flame and exhaust gases must get outside. CO can be deadly before you smell fire.
Another series of bad storms, another round of carbon monoxide deaths. Why does this keep happening? There is much that could be said about the political/policy issues that surround climate change but regardless of cause, that our weather events are becoming more severe is indisputable. When Mother Nature wants to disrupt our industrial world, she continues to prove capable.
A month ago, we would have thought that the big cause of that disruption was tied to power transmission. Windstorms knock down power lines, the power goes out. What Texas has shown us is that not just the transmission of power is vulnerable, but also the generation. Add ice, wind and cold and suddenly people who have never given a minutes thought to how to generate enough heat to survive, are making do with unconventional solutions. In the Dallas Morning News story, the process of sorting out how many people died as a result of the Texas storms is complicated, and includes road accidents, hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2021/03/01/will-texas-ever-figure-out-how-many-people-died-in-the-winter-storm/ While it seems like a can’t win dilemma, risking CO poisoning should never be the choice. CO can kill quickly but disables dozen’s more than it kills.
Carbon Monoxide Disasters from Improvisation
All of these make-do solutions comes with risks, risks that the poor understanding of combustion, leave people vulnerable to CO poisoning. To help people understand the numerous warnings that come with natural disasters, we felt it would be beneficial to review how CO gets inside the air we breathe and why even at the risk of freezing to death, you cannot risk unconventional ways to warm inside air.
When something burns, the technical term for that is combustion. In combustion, for the carbon in fossil fuels oxidizes. When the carbon in fossil fuels mixes with oxygen, it creates the heat and energy which powers the industrialized world. The C atom (carbon) combines with the O (oxygen) atom to create CO2 (carbon dioxide) and water, H2O, making water vaper. This is cycle of life on our planet, with plants then pulling in the carbon atom in the CO2 to create plant matter and expelling back into the O2 for animals, including humans, to breath. When combustion is incomplete (incomplete combustion) the carbon dioxide molecules which plants need becomes carbon monoxide, CO, a potentially lethal molecule. What makes carbon monoxide so toxic is that it replaces oxygen in our blood (technically binds with hemoglobin), without any clear warning of its existence because it is while odorless and colorless.
Carbon monoxide is the number one cause of poisoning deaths in the world. Deaths are higher outside of the United States because much of the world does not have central heat like in the U.S. What happened in Texas in February of 2021 a result of the break down in the way in which people heat their homes. As generally Texas is a mild climate, electric and space heat is used far more than in colder places in the country. But in February, Texas got as cold as it typically might in the Midwest. Failure to plan for that cold, even though the risk has been well understood for at least a decade, is the overarching cause of the disaster.
Carbon Monoxide Disasters more than Deaths
In the United States, for every person who dies, there are likely more than 45 times that number who survive after getting treatment for CO poisoning. Some of the best epidemiological research on CO survivability come from a study done on the impact of portable electric generators by US Consumer Products Safety Commission’s. That research showed 751 CO deaths versus were 8,703 CO injuries seen in emergency departments. In addition, that study also found that 25,400 CO survivors were seen outside of the ER. Thus, there were 34,103 treated compared to the 751 CO deaths, 45 times as many. That may actually under-estimate how many people likely survive carbon monoxide poisoning as the probability of death from generators is much higher than from other causes. In the generator death cases the ambient air CO levels are much higher because generators put off nearly 100,000 ppm in their exhaust.  The U.S. government CDC estimates that 400 people die annually from carbon monoxide poisoning in the U.S.,. Portable generators and furnaces are biggest contributors.
Thus if the death toll in Texas from CO is ultimately determined to be of a magnitude of plus or minus 50, that likely means more than a 1,000 may have suffered permanent brain damage from this one winter storm event. And the problems are not just in Texas. Most of the southeast had similar problems, if not on the scale of Texas.
Are any of the poisonings avoidable? Of course. Let’s start with a simple one. Iced up chimneys on commercial buildings. Hot air goes up chimneys, so they are not expected to freeze. But if it is cold enough (see Polar Vortex in Michigan in 2019) or there is ice, the heat coming out of the chimney may not be hot enough to prevent the ice from building up. Think of it like a defroster on your car. Generally, the defroster keeps condensation and ice from building up on your windshield. But that may not work in an ice storm. It becomes especially troublesome if you keep turning off the defroster. Well a commercial boiler rarely runs constantly, especially one that might be used solely for hot water for showers and laundry. If there is ice falling, that is going to build up in the cycles when the boiler isn’t firing. When the boiler kicks back on, the ice if it melts at all, it may only partially melt.
An iced up chimney is an obstruction to the flow of exhaust out that chimney. If the exhaust can’t go all the way out the chimney to the outside air, it will back up into the building. Counterintuitively, it is more likely to back up into the crawl space underneath the roof, than back into the boiler room. While the boiler room may have a CO detector, as the rooms on the top floor may not. The result: carbon monoxide poisoning with the only warming, a human being getting sick.
Another truly dangerous storm related phenomenon is the use of portable electric generators. Most people are smart enough to not put the generator in the basement but putting it in a garage or within 20 feet of a window can also cause serious levels of CO. Opening the garage door or a window won’t prevent CO poisonings. Any level of CO above alarming levels, can cause permanent brain damage. The higher the levels, the longer the levels exist, the worse the poisoning will get. 300 plus levels can kill. Generators are putting off nearly 100,000 ppm so even if diluted with some outside air, they will still be deadly. What doesn’t kill can severely disable, dozens of times more people.
I have often argued that generators should come with cords that are at least 20 feet long, to make the point that they can’t be used within 20 feet of a dwelling.
Combustion Air Problems create Carbon Monoxide Disasters
One of the reasons poisoning deaths are so high in Asia is that in many places they still use charcoal to heat dwellings. That phenomenon occurred in the United States in February. From the Dallas Morning News: “If a family is found in the living room around a grill.” Grills are meant to be used outside, where there is adequate ventilation and unlimited oxygen for the combustion. As explained above, if there is not enough oxygen for the amount of fuel that is to be burned, two things can happen: the fire will go out, or it will continue to burn with incomplete combustion. A fire going out is far less of a problem than incomplete combustion. Incomplete combustion causes smoke and more dangerously, the creation of CO instead of CO2. Smoke smells and it may be visible, thus if the primary by-product of incomplete combustion is smoke, people will be warned. But smoke often doesn’t begin to be noticeable until CO in the exhaust gets to 4,000 to 5,000 ppm. Human’s noses are sensitive enough to smell it at lower levels. Dogs and other pets often warn of CO events because they can smell smoke at lower concentrations of CO. Humans can die before our noses will smell the smoke. This is why CO detectors are so important, because we can’t smell the CO.
Ovens and Stoves Need More Combustion Air
Warnings often include not to use a gas stove or oven to heat during power disasters. A first reflex when electric heat is out is to turn to gas burning appliances in a house. While this warning is given, reasonable explanations rarely follow. Why is it dangerous to use an oven to heat when it isn’t to bake? There are a couple of explanations, both which likely relate to how the oxygen gets to the flame. The first is a simple one: depending on how airtight the house is, there may simply not be enough oxygen inside the house to keep the oven/stove tops on continuously. A simple example may help: A candle can burn continuously in almost any indoor space without running out of oxygen, but if you light enough candles, and burn them for long enough, perhaps the oxygen is used up. A stove top uses a lot more fuel than a candle. All of the burners on a stove going at once, uses that much more oxygen. That oxygen has to come from somewhere. Houses have been made progressively more airtight to make them more energy efficient. But a perfectly sealed house may run out of oxygen if there are too many appliances using up the available oxygen.
People of course are fuel burning appliances too. Too many people, too many candles, not enough fresh air can equal of deficiency of oxygen. A deficiency in oxygen leads to CO.
The other concern with ovens is that they may be designed to only burn efficiently with the over door closed. With the oven door open, it may disrupt the flame in such a way to make it burn inefficiently. All burners are designed to burn with a predictable intake of oxygen. If the fresh air is coming from an unpredictable direction, it may interfere with the flame (much like blowing on a candle does) in such a way as to disrupt the burners. This is caused quenching of a flame. A quenched flame, creates CO. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9781483197531500099
For a more detailed explanation of why not to use gas ovens to heat, click here. https://allairsystemsnj.com/using-an-oven-to-heat-a-house-heres-why-its-a-bad-idea/
What is the takeaway to avoiding carbon monoxide disasters? A modern household is not intended to be heated by anything other than a furnace or electrical heat device. Improvising can be dangerous. Always remember that using a fire, be that in your oven, your car, or in a generator, comes with the risk of exhaust, which must be presumed to include CO. If that exhaust isn’t removed from the dwelling, poisoning may occur.
CO Alarms Save Lives
A properly maintained carbon monoxide alarm will warn of most poisonings and should certainly alarm before anyone dies. Many of these storm related deaths and poisonings would be avoided if all dwellings had carbon monoxide alarms installed. Such alarms should always be where anyone sleeps, regardless of whether there is a fuel burning appliance in that space. As in the commercial boiler with an iced up exhaust flue, CO may migrate to occupied spaces, distant from the actual fire.
Attorney Gordon Johnson
 We have personally seen levels as high as 90,000 ppm in generator exhaust but never more than 9,000 from a furnace or other HVAC device.
Don't run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open. Don't burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't vented. Don't heat your house with a gas oven. Don't use a generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent.How do you manage carbon monoxide poisoning? ›
Guidance for Management of Confirmed or Suspected CO Poisoning. Administer 100% oxygen until the patient is symptom-free, usually about 4-5 hours. Serial neurologic exams should be performed to assess progress, and to detect the signs of developing cerebral edema.Why is it important to protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning? ›
Carbon monoxide (or CO) is an odorless, invisible gas that can kill you or make you very sick. The longer your exposure to CO, the more concentrated and deadly it becomes.What is the most common way to get carbon monoxide poisoning? ›
Most carbon monoxide exposures happen in the winter. The most common source of CO poisoning is unvented space heaters in the home. An unvented space heater uses combustible fuel and indoor air for the heating process. It vents the gases it makes into the room, instead of outdoors.What causes carbon monoxide in a house? ›
Carbon Monoxide Sources in the Home
CO is produced whenever a material burns. Homes with fuel-burning appliances or attached garages are more likely to have CO problems Common sources of CO in our homes include fuel-burning appliances and devices such as: Clothes dryers. Water heaters.
Schedule regular maintenance. ... Keep fireplaces clean and well vented. ... Install CO alarms. ... Maintain your CO alarms.What are sources of carbon monoxide? ›
Sources of Carbon Monoxide
Unvented kerosene and gas space heaters; leaking chimneys and furnaces; back-drafting from furnaces, gas water heaters, wood stoves, and fireplaces; gas stoves; generators and other gasoline powered equipment; automobile exhaust from attached garages; and tobacco smoke.
The half-life of carboxyhemoglobin in fresh air is approximately 4 hours. To completely flush the carbon monoxide from the body requires several hours, valuable time when additional damage can occur.How do you check for carbon monoxide? ›
The easiest way to see if there is carbon monoxide inside your home is with a carbon monoxide detector (which also includes an alarm). In fact, many building codes require a carbon monoxide gas detector.What should you do to protect yourself and others from carbon monoxide poisoning boat? ›
- Properly install and maintain all fuel-burning engines and appliances.
- Educate all passengers about the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning.
- Swim and play away from areas where engines vent their exhaust.
- Watch children closely when they play on rear swim decks or water platforms.
- Install Carbon Monoxide Monitors. ...
- Test Your Carbon Monoxide Monitor System. ...
- Memorize the Signs and Symptoms. ...
- Clean Your Gas Dryer Filter. ...
- Limit Your Exposure to Carbon Monoxide. ...
- Run Drills and Develop an Emergency Plan With Your Family. ...
- Get Your Appliances Serviced Regularly.
A carbon monoxide detector is a must for any home and just as important as a smoke detector. CO detectors should be placed near all bedrooms; they're the only way you will know if carbon monoxide is affecting the air quality in your home, and can help prevent serious illness and even death.Why is carbon monoxide poisonous? ›
Carbon monoxide is harmful when breathed because it displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain and other vital organs of oxygen. Large amounts of CO can overcome you in minutes without warning — causing you to lose consciousness and suffocate.What are the levels of carbon monoxide poisoning? ›
As CO levels increase and remain above 70 ppm, symptoms become more noticeable and can include headache, fatigue and nausea. At sustained CO concentrations above 150 to 200 ppm, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death are possible.Where is carbon monoxide commonly found? ›
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by burning gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel. Improperly ventilated appliances and engines, particularly in a tightly sealed or enclosed space, may allow carbon monoxide to accumulate to dangerous levels.What does carbon monoxide smell like in a house? ›
Carbon monoxide gas is colourless and does not smell, so you cannot tell if it is around you. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include: headache.How do you get carbon dioxide out of your house? ›
- Ventilation can make a huge difference. ...
- Keep a tab on your HVAC system. ...
- Installing algae-based air filters can be beneficial. ...
- Bring the greenery inside. ...
- Limit using rugs or carpets around the house.
This is an Expert-Verified Answer
Sugar water by mixing sugar in water. Mouthwash is a solution with lots of chemicals already mixed in it. Tincture of iodine can also be obtained by mixing crystals of iodine in alcohol. Vinegar is a solution which is formed by mixing acetic acid and water.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause death. For those who survive, recovery is slow. How well a person does depends on the amount and length of exposure to the carbon monoxide. Permanent brain damage may occur.Can you recover from carbon monoxide poisoning on your own? ›
Most people who develop mild carbon monoxide poisoning recover quickly when moved into fresh air.
Most people with a mild exposure to carbon monoxide experience headaches, fatigue, and nausea. Unfortunately, the symptoms are easily overlooked because they are often flu-like. Medium exposure can cause you to experience a throbbing headache, drowsiness, disorientation, and an accelerated heart rate.What are two warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning? ›
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. CO symptoms are often described as “flu-like.” If you breathe in a lot of CO it can make you pass out or kill you.How can I test my carbon monoxide without a detector? ›
You can check for carbon monoxide without a detector by looking for soot stains or yellow marks near appliances. Stale air may also be a sign. Carbon monoxide cannot be detected without a detector, but there are signs you might notice if it is accumulating indoors.How do you know if you have a carbon monoxide leak? ›
The smell of exhaust gases. Pilot light is frequently blowing out. Increased soot buildup in your chimney vent. Brownish-yellow stains around your gas appliances.What action should you take if carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected on your vessel? ›
- Move the person immediately to fresh air in an open area. Open doors and windows, turn off gas appliances and leave the boat;
- Go to the hospital. ...
- Call 911 or another local emergency number for immediate medical attention;
- Do not reboard the boat until you receive an expert opinion (ex: firefighters).
Opening windows does not provide enough ventilation to be protective. CO is an invisible, odorless gas that can be fatal. If you breathe in a lot of CO gas, it can make you pass out or kill you. People who are sleeping or drunk can die from CO poisoning before they have symptoms.How long does it take to get carbon monoxide poisoning? ›
For instance, a concentration of 400 ppm will cause headaches in 1 to 2 hours. In 3 to 5 hours the same concentration can lead to unconsciousness and death.What are two warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning? ›
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. CO symptoms are often described as “flu-like.” If you breathe in a lot of CO it can make you pass out or kill you.How can you tell if there is carbon monoxide in your house? ›
Check if you have carbon monoxide poisoning
- feeling sick or being sick.
- feeling weak.
- chest and muscle pain.
- shortness of breath.
Most people with a mild exposure to carbon monoxide experience headaches, fatigue, and nausea. Unfortunately, the symptoms are easily overlooked because they are often flu-like. Medium exposure can cause you to experience a throbbing headache, drowsiness, disorientation, and an accelerated heart rate.
If the alarm sounds and no one is feeling any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, ventilate the home by opening windows and doors and turning on fans. Turn off any combustion appliances immediately.How do you check for carbon monoxide without a detector? ›
- Brownish or yellowish stains around appliances.
- A pilot light that frequently goes out.
- Burner flame appears yellow instead of clear blue (exception: natural gas fireplaces)
- No upward draft in chimney flue.
- Stale-smelling air.
Most people who develop mild carbon monoxide poisoning recover quickly when moved into fresh air.Can you be slowly poisoned by carbon monoxide? ›
Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning happens when you breathe in fumes that contain CO. You can get very sick or even die if you breathe high levels of CO for even a few minutes.How can I lower my carbon dioxide levels in my blood? ›
Some studies show that treatment with sodium bicarbonate or sodium citrate pills can help improve metabolic acidosis. Eating more fruits and vegetables (and fewer meats, eggs, cheese and cereal grains) can also help. Talk to your healthcare provider about the safest ways to balance the CO2 levels in your blood.Where is carbon monoxide commonly found? ›
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by burning gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel. Improperly ventilated appliances and engines, particularly in a tightly sealed or enclosed space, may allow carbon monoxide to accumulate to dangerous levels.What kind of headache do you get from carbon monoxide? ›
A tension-type headache is the most common symptom of mild carbon monoxide poisoning. Other symptoms include: dizziness. nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting.How do you know if you have a carbon monoxide leak? ›
The smell of exhaust gases. Pilot light is frequently blowing out. Increased soot buildup in your chimney vent. Brownish-yellow stains around your gas appliances.Where is the best place in the house to put a carbon monoxide detector? ›
At a minimum, industry experts recommend a CO alarm be installed on each level of the home -- ideally on any level with fuel burning appliances and outside of sleeping areas. Additional CO alarms are recommended 5-20 feet from sources of CO such as a furnace, water heater or fireplace.Can dogs smell carbon monoxide? ›
Carbon monoxide, commonly known as CO, is an odorless, colorless, and non-irritating gas. No pet can identify the gas because CO lacks any scent whatsoever. Exposure can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning in both humans and pets.
Carbon monoxide gas leaves the body the same way it got in, through the lungs. In fresh air, it takes four to six hours for a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning to exhale about half of the inhaled carbon monoxide in their blood.