The Life Leech: Carbon Monoxide Gas in Your Home

May 22, 2017

Carbon monoxide is a gas that occasionally accumulates in homes due to common appliances and daily activities. Prolonged exposure displaces oxygen in the human body, which leads to poisoning, and without further action, even death. Installing carbon monoxide alarms in your home can save lives.

The Danger of Carbon Monoxide

The first question that many people ask is “what does carbon monoxide smell like?” After all, natural gas leaks smell like rotten eggs. But that’s the scary thing—carbon monoxide has no odor. It also cannot be seen or tasted. This means it can build up to critical levels inside of a home and remain undetected until illness occurs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 400 people die annually from unintentional carbon monoxide exposure. 

Carbon Monoxide Sources

Any home with a fuel-burning appliance or an attached garage can develop a carbon monoxide problem. The most common sources are fireplaces, gas stoves, waters heaters, furnaces and boilers. Vehicles, generators, and power tools can quickly accumulate it in an enclosed garage space. Cigarette smoking also produces the gas. As with many chemicals, the key to avoiding poisoning from these sources is good ventilation.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is often referred to as a “silent killer” because initial symptoms are very similar to the flu and often ignored until more severe symptoms set in, which can compromise recovery.

  1. Initially, a person will experience shortness of breath and a slight headache.
  2. Continued exposure leads to dizziness, nausea and extreme fatigue.
  3. If the person is not removed from the source of the gas, they will become confused, lose coordination and eventually faint.

Once a person has lost consciousness, they must receive medical attention immediately! Those with cardiovascular disease, anemia, or respiratory problems such as emphysema or asthma are the most vulnerable to death by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon Monoxide Alarms

Installing carbon monoxide detectors and alarms in strategic places around your home is the best way to prevent illness and possible loss of life due to gas buildup. Each alarm should be set up within 10 feet of all sleeping areas, in garages, and all locations with a fuel-burning appliance. Alarms are inexpensive and generally last from five to seven years. They should be approved by Underwriters Laboratories and replaced at the interval recommended by the manufacturer for best performance.

Effects of Carbon Monoxide over Time

Even with sensitive carbon monoxide detectors in place, exposure to low concentrations of carbon monoxide over time can take its own toll. Recent research suggests that prolonged exposure can decrease blood oxygen levels as well as blood supply to the heart and brain, causing the following subtle symptoms:

  • Frequent headaches
  • General malaise
  • Decreased athletic performance
  • Decreased sensory perception
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Blood vessel damage
  • Aggravated heart conditions

For more information, read “Effects on health of prolonged exposure to low concentrations of carbon monoxide” by C.L. Townsend and R.L. Maynard online.

If you find that you feel better at work than you do at home, or need to take frequent vacations away from home for your health, your home may have a mild carbon monoxide leak somewhere.

How to Reduce/Eliminate Carbon Monoxide in Your Home

Install and maintain heating appliances properly. Appliances like furnaces, water heaters, fireplaces, wood/coal/gas stoves, and space heaters should all be inspected for proper function annually.

Ventilate. Keep windows open and fans running whenever possible to circulate air and dilute carbon monoxide concentrations. This is especially important in rooms with any of the abovementioned appliances.

Open the garage door while your car is running. If your garage is attached to your house, carbon monoxide can leak in under the door. Also take care not to leave your car running for too long without ventilation—carbon monoxide can build up inside the car itself if there are leaks in the exhaust system.

Do not use gas appliances indoors. Gas stoves are fine, as long as they are not used for extended periods of time. Charcoal or gas grills and hibachi pots should not be used in the home or in a closed garage.

Invest in houseplants. Thanks to studies by NASA, researchers have discovered certain plants with the ability to cleanse carbon monoxide and other toxins from indoor air. Fortunately, these plants are also easy to find as popular houseplants.

  • Rubber plant (Ficus robusta)
  • Ficus Alii (Ficus macleilandii “Alii”)
  • Dracaena “Janet Craig” (Dracaena deremensis)
  • Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum “Mauna Loa”)
  • Philodendron
  • Areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens)
  • Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)
  • Lady Palm (Rhapsis excelsa)
  • Dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelenii)
  • Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata “Bostoniensis”)


Carbon monoxide gas poisoning is a 100% preventable problem. Mysterious flu-like symptoms should never be dismissed, no matter how minor they seem. Investing in alarms, houseplants, and proper appliance maintenance can be a lifesaving step in creating a healthy indoor environment for you and your family.


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