Doctors’ Notes


Carbon Monoxide Dangers & Detectors

With Winter time almost here, we thought this would be a good time to write a Doctor’s Note about the importance of having protection from this harmful gas.

All homes that use natural gas, wood, or gas fireplaces, as well as homes that use backup generators or other carbon-fueled heat and power sources, should have CO detectors.

CO DetectorCO is present in low levels in the air. It’s found in the home from incomplete combustion from flame-fueled devices such as ranges, ovens, clothes dryers, furnaces, fireplaces, grills, space heaters, vehicles, and water heaters. Furnaces and water heaters can produce CO; they must be vented properly so the CO escapes to outside the home. Open flames from gas ranges and ovens are the source for most of the CO in the home. Vehicles are the most common source of CO poisoning.

Carbon Monoxide is especially dangerous, because without a detector, you have no warning that it’s in your home. CO has no color, no taste, and no odor. When CO is in your system, it impairs your body’s ability to transport oxygen in the blood. Some symptoms of CO poisoning include headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, chest pain, and confusion. At higher levels of exposure, CO can cause loss of consciousness and even death. Sometimes the symptoms are hard to pick up on, because they so closely mimic flu-like illnesses. If everyone in the family seems to be suffering from the same symptoms, and you notice that going outside in the fresh air or being out of the house seems to make you feel better, you should check on your CO levels.

To help prevent CO poisoning there are a few steps you can take:

  • Never leave a car running in the garage, even with the garage door open
  • Never use a charcoal grill, propane grill, or portable camping stove inside the home, or in an enclosed space
  • Have furnaces, wood stoves, fireplaces, gas-fired water heaters, ovens, ranges, and clothes dryers checked and serviced every year
  • Never use a gas oven to heat your home
  • Put Carbon Monoxide detectors on every floor in your home

Some Information About CO Detectors

There are three types of CO detectors. Plug-in models plug directly into an outlet and will have a battery backup. Experts give the First Alert model the highest accuracy rating. There are also detectors that run from battery power. Experts give good reviews to theKidde Carbon Monoxide Detector. The last type are hardwired detectors, which may be seen in newer homes.

If you’re living in a larger home with several floors, experts suggest interconnecting CO detectors. When one alarm picks up harmful levels of CO, all of the alarms will sound. Experts recommend First Alert Onelink monitors.

 There are also CO detectors combined with smoke alarms. This is one way to cut down on the amount of alarms in your home, however experts suggest that these models only include just one of the two types of smoke-detector sensors, and they say you should have both types throughout your home. Experts do recommend Kidde models, but warn that these do not have a photoelectric fire sensor. They only hav an ionization smoke sensor, which can detect flames but not smoky fires.

Shopping for CO Detectors

Look for the UL symbol on the packaging. These models meet product safety standards set by the Underwriters Laboratory, an independent product safety certification program.

Get a detector with a digital display. They can alert you to rising levels of CO before they trigger an alarm. Being exposed for a period of time to a level of 30 ppm may harm patients with heart problems, unborn babies, and children, but most detectors will not sound an alarm until 70 ppm or higher.

Models with strobe lights are helpful for those with hearing impairments


  • There should be at least one CO detector per level of home. You should also have a CO detector in the basement, where furnaces and other fuel-burning appliances may be.
  • The best place to put the detector is about head-height on a wall. Because the appliances that produce CO also produce heat, and because CO rises with hot air, head-height is the ideal spot to mount a detector.
  • CO detectors should also be placed about 20 feet from fuel-burning appliances, because they emit a small amount of CO when first being turned on.
  • CO detectors should not be placed near windows or fans, because the ventilation may prevent them from going off.
  • Remember to read the package labels about recommendations on the distance a detector should be from steam sources (i.e. bathrooms and dishwashers), household chemicals, and other things that can trigger false alarms.
  • Test the CO detectors regularly. Hard-wired detectors should be checked monthly. Battery operated detectors should be checked weekly, and batteries should be replaced at least once a year. You should also replace detectors every 2 years.
  • Consider buying a test kit. To verify the sensor is working a test kit may be a good investment. The buttons on the detectors only sound the alarm and do not actually verify the sensors are truly working. Most kits come with an aerosol can of CO and plastic bag that seals around the detector and allows a test to see if the alarm will sound with a dangerous level of CO present.
  • Do not connect plug-in units to an electrical outlet controlled by a light switch. When the switch is turned off, it will drain the backup batteries, leading to low-battery alerts and the need to replace batteries more often.

If your CO detector starts to sound, you should get everyone out of the house and move them into fresh air. See if anyone is experiencing any symptoms, and call 911. The fire department come to your home and evaluate for a leak. You can also call your local utility company to come and evaluate your home for a leak.

For more resources about carbon monoxide, the Allegheny County Health Department has a brochure with some great information.

Brianna Rothbauer is a former Kids Plus Provider.