Carbon Monoxide: The Invisible Poison

By MNR News posted 01-18-2022 11:40

In December of 2021, eight family members in Shakopee, Minnesota were rushed to the hospital after calling 911 because three of them were extremely ill. Fortunately, all eight of them survived after being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Not everyone is so lucky. In 2021 another family, who lived in Moorhead, succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Tragically, all seven of them, ages five to 37, died in their sleep.

As you can see, carbon monoxide (CO) is not something to take lightly.

What is carbon monoxide and how does it get into our homes?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless and odorless gas that is created when fuel is combusted. Natural gas, propane, gasoline, or wood are the major types of fuel that are used in homes.

Unless you live in a grass shack in the tropics, your home likely has sources of combustion that generate CO. Think of furnaces, generators, appliances, even your fireplace. Attached garages, where many people will leave a car or snowblower engine running, can also cause CO to enter your living spaces, even when the garage door is open. 

None of these CO-producing items are necessarily a problem in the home; that is, until something occurs that makes the levels of CO gas build up with nowhere to go.

Could I get CO poisoning in my ice fishing shack?

The answer is yes! It isn’t only your home that can create a situation where CO becomes deadly. Grills and power tools, if used in areas where there isn’t enough ventilation, can also produce high levels of CO. Boats are another major culprit and, yes, Minnesotans’ fascination with ice fishing can also result in illness or death by CO if the fishing enclosure is heated. 

How will I know if I’ve been exposed to excess CO?

Unfortunately, because carbon monoxide is odorless, people rarely know that they are being poisoned. CO fumes cannot be detected by any of our five senses. Headaches, breathlessness, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea—all signs of CO poisoning— are also signs of many other illnesses, which make them easy to ignore. By the time people have these symptoms, they are already in the latter stages of poisoning. 

In Minnesota, unintentional CO poisoning causes an average of 14 deaths per year, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. In 2019, an additional 38 people were hospitalized.

CO poisoning prevention 101

While all of this sounds grim, most of these accidents could have been prevented. 

In both cases of recent CO poisoning described in the beginning of this article, authorities discovered that carbon monoxide detectors in the homes were either missing or disabled.

Here’s how to protect your family: 

  • Use CO detectors correctly. Minnesota law mandates that CO detectors must be placed in all single and multi-family homes within 10 feet of any room that is used for sleeping. This includes rental homes, which are subject to annual inspections. The alarms must be UL listed. It is best to test them every fall and winter, and to replace them completely every five to ten years, depending on the manufacturer’s specifications. 
  • Have your furnace or boiler checked annually. Most CO poisonings in cold states like Minnesota occur during the winter months, so it’s best to do this in the fall.  
  • Check your other appliances. Keep an eye on any of your appliances that vent. Streaks of soot around an appliance, rusting flue pipes, and excess moisture mean that it’s time for a professional evaluation. Additionally, any appliance fueled by gas should have a pilot light that is blue in color. If it’s yellow, this is an indication that a problem could exist. 
  • Place portable generators at least 25 feet from a house.
  • Do not leave any type of engine or power tool running in unventilated spaces. If that space is attached to your living spaces, try to use the engine outdoors. 

And, yes, it is possible to buy a battery-operated CO detector for your fishing shack. 

What do Realtors® need to know about CO?

Some municipalities in our state require a pre-listing inspection by a licensed home inspector. Those inspectors always check for carbon monoxide and smoke detectors. If those are not present, or are not working, you can’t close a property sale. 

Information about CO is also a great hand-out for your clients. Click here to obtain a PDF brochure from the Minnesota Department of Health about CO.  

The bottom line: Don’t mess around with anything in your home or recreational activities that create combustion. Your life and the lives of your family could depend on it.