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Is your home prepared for a carbon monoxide leak? Here's what you need to know

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 400 Americans die annually from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning.

Millions of people in Texas are still without power after a winter storm hit early Tuesday — leading some residents to turn to dangerous sources of heat to stay warm. Two people, including a child, were found dead in a Houston home due to carbon monoxide poisoning, according to NBC News. Local authorities found a car running on the scene, presumably used to generate heat. After six people in the Cypress area, located north of Houston, were hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning, the Texas Poison Control issued a warning that cars, grills or generators should not be used indoors to create warmth. The department stressed that extreme winter weather may increase the risk of "unintentional poisonings" that happen at home.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 400 Americans die annually from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning. On average, more than 20,000 people visit the emergency room and more than 4,000 people are hospitalized each year. Since carbon monoxide is often produced by faulty and imprudent use of gas appliances, it is often preventable.

The following information from Erlend Bolle, CTO of Airthings, producers of technology that evaluates air quality, the CDC and the Consumer Product Safety Commission will help keep you and your family safe from this silent killer.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO), is an odorless, colorless gas that’s emitted from incomplete combustion processes.

Where is CO produced in the home?

  • Faulty gas appliances like furnaces, water heaters, dryers, stoves, gas space heaters and fireplaces.
  • Other causes are burning charcoal indoors, and indoor use of portable gas camp stoves, generators or gas heaters meant for outdoor use only.
  • Another source of CO is cars left running in attached, closed garages.
  • Electrical stoves, water heaters, toasters and heaters do not produce CO.

What are symptoms of CO poisoning?

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, symptoms depend on the level of CO and length of exposure to CO. Initially, low-to-moderate CO poisoning produces flu-like symptoms, but without the fever. These include headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness and nausea.

High-level CO poisoning produces progressively more severe symptoms: mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, loss of consciousness and even death.

In light of the recent number of natural disasters in the country, more people are using generators as a temporary source of electricity. It is critical to note that running generators indoors or near an enclosed space is especially dangerous because it produces such fast, high levels of CO that victims may immediately experience severe symptoms without first experiencing milder ones.

How can CO poisoning be prevented?

The short answer? Use carbon monoxide alarms.

  • Battery-powered CO alarms cost $14 and up, and are available at discount stores like Walmart, Target and home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, as well as online at Amazon. Check out Consumer Reports for ratings and features before buying.
  • Before choosing an off-brand, make sure the carbon monoxide alarm meets the current requirements.
  • Check or replace your device’s batteries at least twice a year and replace it every five years.
  • Install an alarm on every level of the home. Bedrooms, or hallways between bedrooms, should also have alarms so that those sleeping are sure to be awakened. Replace the batteries annually and test the alarms monthly.

Additional preventative measures

  • Keep an eye out if your pilot light is frequently going out, your gas burners turn an odd color, or you see an abnormal amount of soot on fuel-burning appliances or dew on hard surfaces. These could indicate incomplete combustion.
  • Make sure all gas appliances are vented properly by facing their horizontal vent pipes upwards as they go outdoors.
  • Never use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens or clothes dryers to heat your home.
  • Never operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in any room where people are sleeping.
  • Have chimneys and flues professionally cleaned and inspected every year.
  • Never patch a vent pipe yourself.
  • Do not burn charcoal or portable gas camp stoves inside a home, garage, vehicle or tent unless it is specifically designed for use in enclosed areas and provides instructions for safe use.
  • Never leave a car running in a closed, attached garage.
  • Have the heating system professionally inspected and serviced every year.
  • Never operate a portable generator or any other gas engine-powered tool in or near an enclosed space like a garage, house or other building. Even with open door and windows, CO can be trapped and build to deadly levels.
  • Do not cover the bottom of natural gas or propane ovens with aluminum foil. Doing so blocks the combustion air flow through the appliance and can produce CO.
  • During home renovations, ensure that appliance vents and chimneys are not blocked by tarps or debris. Make sure appliances are in proper working order when renovations are complete.

What should I do when the CO alarm goes off?

Get yourself and all other occupants out of the house immediately. Call 911 from outside the house and stay out of the house until emergency services say it’s OK to go back inside.

If the source of the CO is identified by emergency services, do not use that item until it’s been checked out by a service professional. Should the alarm sound again within 24 hours, repeat the above steps. Have all gas-burning appliances checked by a qualified professional and make necessary repairs

For more information on how you can protect your loved ones and prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in your home, visit the CDC website.