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Carbon Monoxide Safety Tips

You can't see it, or taste it or smell it. But just about everything that burns fuel, from your car to your furnace to your water heater, produces carbon monoxide. If it escapes into your house, it can be fatal.

CBS This Morning home repair expert Bob Vila reports that every year, there are new cases of people being made seriously ill, and even killed, by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in their home.

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of incomplete combustion. Any appliance in your home that burns fossil fuels (like natural gas, coal, wood and propane) produces carbon monoxide when it burns.

Ever since the energy crises of the 1970s, new homes have been built tighter and tighter. Using a model borrowed from Iowa State University, Vila illustrates how carbon monoxide can accumulate in any home, especially a very "tight" house.

Burning incense simulates carbon dioxide exiting through a chimney, because the fire has a good source of air from an open door. But when Vila closes the door (simulating a house that lets in little outside air) and turns on a light bulb (simulating a gas furnace), there is not enough air being drawn in from any other outside source, and the chimney begins to do what is called "downdrafting," sucking the carbon monoxide that was exiting out the chimney back into the home.

The situation gets even more dangerous when you turn on a fan that draws air from inside the house and exhaust it outdoors (like an exhaust fan or a clothes dryer).

What can you do to protect yourself?

  • Make sure all appliances in your home are functioning properly. A well-adjusted furnace or a properly vented fireplace pose little danger. You should get all your heating and cooling appliances checked at least once a year. Something as simple as a bird's nest in the chimney can cause a problem.
  • The Consumer Products Safety Commission recommends that homes have at least one carbon monoxide detector installed in a home's sleeping area. When you install one, don't put it in the basement near the furnace or above the fireplace.
  • If the alarm does go off, you should gather everyone in the home in a predetermined spot (preferably outside) and make sure that no one feels ill. Symptoms often resemble the flu and sleepiness or dizziness.

    Anyone who is sick should be sent to a doctor. Then it is wise to have your appliances checked out to see what and where the carbon monoxide is coming from.

For more information on the effects of carbon monoxide and how to keep your home free of it, visit the Consumer Products Safety Commission Web site.
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