On May 6 the Rancho Adobe Fire Department was dispatched to a carbon monoxide alarm being activated at a home in Cotati. The residents called the fire department who came and found high levels of the lethal gas inside the home. Upon further investigation it was determined that the source of the CO was a clogged filter on the home furnace. Subsequently the gas was pushed through vents throughout all the rooms in the house.
While the fire department gets several of these calls on average per month, most tend to be false alarms. Having actual high levels of CO in a home serves as an important reminder to all residents of the importance of having carbon monoxide alarms in their homes and heeding when they are activated.
“We usually get a few calls of carbon monoxide alarms [per month], but the majority of the time, they’re false alarms or malfunctioning alarms,” says Captain Jimmy Bernal of the Rancho Adobe Fire Department who was at the call in Cotati. “We were expecting that when we went to this call. When we walked in we did our usual investigations with a gas monitor device that detects different types of gases including carbon monoxide and that started alarming us, saying that there was a high level of CO gas.”
Thankfully, even though the homeowners were still inside, they were not symptomatic to the gas and denied medical assistance.
“My recommendation if an alarm goes off, don’t just suspect it’s a false alarm,” says Bernal. “Make sure you call 9-1-1. We’ll go there and inspect it and if it’s a false alarm we’ll tell you to service it or replace it.”
In addition, if residents suspect there may be a gas leak in their home, they can also contact PG&E who will come and inspect the property for free.
Carbon monoxide is found in fumes produced by burning fuel in automobiles, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, or furnaces. The danger with the gas is that it is colorless and odorless. It can build up indoors and poison people and animals who breathe it without them knowing – sometimes until it is too late to seek help or escape, especially if it builds up during the night when people are sleeping with closed windows. When people breathe in enough CO to displace the oxygen in their body, it can first make people lose consciousness and eventually kill them.
The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headaches, feelings of dizziness and weakness, upset stomachs, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. CO symptoms are often described as “flu-like.” In fact, the family in Cotati whose alarm was activated in the beginning of May had colds at the time and did not notice any symptoms and only realized there was a problem when the alarm was activated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning not linked to fires each year. In addition, more than 20,000 visit the emergency room and more than 4,000 are hospitalized from breathing the gas.
The Rancho Adobe Fire District urges homeowners to make sure to have a carbon monoxide alarm if they have a gas burning appliance, an attached garage, and /or a fireplace. They also advise residents, or in the case of apartments or senior living facilities, the building managers, to check the alarm batteries twice a year, just like a smoke alarm. If an alarm activates, residents should immediately call 9-1-1. Lastly, they recommend replacing alarms after 10 years, changing furnace filters every three months and having furnaces serviced annually.
“Check the carbon monoxide alarm batteries twice a year,” says Bernal. “Every time there is a time change check the batteries or replace them. When it gets close to the 10-year mark, about six to eight years, the alarms can start to show some signs of malfunctioning with false alarms.”
The CDC recommends only buying gas equipment carrying the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters’ Laboratories. They also warn residents to make sure gas appliances are vented properly and to have chimneys checked or cleaned every year. Chimneys that are blocked with debris can cause CO to build up inside a home.
“It’s very important,” says Bernal. “It’s proven that smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms do save lives.”