Carbon Monoxide Detectors
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, carbon monoxide poisoning is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America. Carbon monoxide detectors are available, but you need to understand how they work and what their limitations are in order to decide whether or not you need a detector and, if you purchase a detector, how to use it to get the best protection.
What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas. Each carbon monoxide molecule is composed of a single carbon atom bonded to a single oxygen atom. Carbon monoxide results from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, such as wood, kerosene, gasoline, charcoal, propane, natural gas, and oil.
Where is Carbon Monoxide Found?
Carbon monoxide is present in low levels in the air. In the home, it is formed from incomplete combustion from any flame-fueled (i.e., not electric) device, including ranges, ovens, clothes dryers, furnaces, fireplaces, grills, space heaters, vehicles, and water heaters. Furnaces and water heaters may be sources of carbon monoxide, but if they are vented properly the carbon monoxide will escape to the outside. Open flames, such as from ovens and ranges, are the most common source of carbon monoxide. Vehicles are the most common cause of carbon monoxide poisoning.
How Do Carbon Monoxide Detectors Work?
Carbon monoxide detectors trigger an alarm based on an accumulation of carbon monoxide over time. Detectors may be based on a chemical reaction causing a color change, an electrochemical reaction that produces current to trigger an alarm, or a semiconductor sensor that changes its electrical resistance in the presence of CO. Most carbon monoxide detectors require a continuous power supply, so if the power cuts off then the alarm becomes ineffective. Models are available that offer back-up battery power. Carbon monoxide can harm you if you are exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide in a short period of time, or to lower levels of carbon monoxide over a long period of time, so there are different types of detectors depending on how the level of carbon monoxide is measured.
Why is Carbon Monoxide Dangerous?
When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it passes from the lungs into the hemoglobin molecules of red blood cells. Carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin at the same site as and preferentially to oxygen, forming carboxyhemoglobin. Carboxyhemoglobin interferes with the oxygen transport and gas exchange abilities of red blood cells. The result is that the body becomes oxygen-starved, which can result in tissue damage and death.
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