Last month, Lynn McNelly, a Colorado woman, was in a deadly situation without even realizing it. When the carbon monoxide (CO) alarms started going off in her home office, she thought it must have been a malfunction and requested that the alarm company dispatcher reset the alarms. The dispatcher refused and managed to convince Lynn to evacuate.
When the fire department arrived, they detected CO levels of 220 part per million, much higher than normal levels of zero parts per million. It turned out that Lynn was getting her carpets cleaned, and the compressor used in the carpet cleaning process was leaking CO. Lynn couldn’t see it, smell it, or taste it, so she thought she was fine.
Despite the lack of symptoms, Lynn was at a high risk of dying from CO poisoning. She now credits the dispatcher who refused to turn off the alarm with saving her life. On Thursday, the dispatcher was awarded a Life Saver Award from her company, and Lynn was only around to witness the ceremony because of the dispatcher’s persistence.
What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas produced by burning fuels such as wood, oil, natural gas, propane, kerosene, coal and gasoline. It’s found commonly in smoke and is a chemical asphyxiant that commonly causes inhalation injuries.
CO is not poisonous in the typical sense, like a venomous snake bite. Instead, CO poisoning occurs when CO molecules attach to the hemoglobin in the blood. Hemoglobin is essential to the body’s ability to distribute oxygen. Hemoglobin that has attached to CO instead of oxygen prevents this process and deprives the body of oxygen. The initial symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu and include headaches, dizziness, nausea, weakness, loss of muscle control, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and sleepiness. Prolonged exposure to CO leads to unconsciousness, brain damage, and eventually death.
Listen to the Alarm
So how can you help protect yourself from something you can’t see, smell, or taste? The answer is a carbon monoxide alarm. They range in complexity and price from as little as $20 for a wall plug-in all the way up to an integrated home alarm system like the one Lynn McNelly had.
But regardless of price or complexity, the alarm is only useful if you pay attention to any warnings it provides. Carbon monoxide accidents in the home are normally caused by appliance malfunctions that you can’t see or detect. You won’t know that an accident is happening because the gas is undetectable by human senses. The best thing to do is always err on the side of caution.
Evacuate any enclosed areas and head outside to fresh air. Leave doors and windows open as you exit to allow fresh air to clear out the already built up CO. Because CO can confusion and decrease your decision making capabilities, evacuate as quickly as possible before taking secondary precautions such as contacting emergency number—including the fire department and your gas or heating companies.