Tomorrow is the last day of summer. The coming colder weather revives a sad statistic that sends 50,000 U.S. residents to emergency rooms each year. On average, 430 die, according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. The culprit is carbon monoxide.
The difference between carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide isn’t obvious for non-chemists. Carbon is everywhere. Even our bodies are made from it. Oxygen is everywhere as well and we can’t live without it. With two oxygen atoms attached to a carbon atom, CO2 is harmless in small amounts. Every time we exhale, part of that breath is carbon dioxide.
Subtract one oxygen atom, and the resulting gas is carbon monoxide (CO), a lethal danger. Most accidental CO poisoning is due to faulty gas furnaces and automobile exhaust. It’s common at supermarket parking lots to see a person waiting in a car, engine idling and windows closed, while someone else presumably is doing the shopping. It comes with a risk, no matter whether it’s air conditioning or heat that’s desired. A leak in the exhaust system can route engine fumes into the car, resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning. Good neighbors discreetly look at persons sitting in an idling car, to make sure they aren’t passed out from fumes.
A gas furnace can be a silent killer too. According to my local HVAC service, it doesn’t take much malfunction to have the heating system put carbon monoxide into the house. It’s invisible, odorless, and causes sleepiness followed by death. Like carbon dioxide, CO is heavier than regular air. This makes the lower floor of a house more vulnerable than the upstairs. That fact also determines the best placement of CO detectors. Like smoke alarms, they should be an essential part of every home. But while smoke detectors need to be mounted high to catch the first whiffs of rising smoke, carbon monoxide sniffers need to sit low. In my bedroom, one is at the exact level of the bed. Another one resides in the basement, about 20 feet from the furnace and 3 feet above ground level.
Suppose you could buy a $20 car accessory that prevents you from getting killed in a crash, would you buy it? If the answer is “yes”, it’s a no-brainer to spend that amount on a carbon monoxide detector for the home.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.