What Causes Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Every year in the U.S, accidental carbon monoxide poisoning claims an average of 430 lives and causes 50,000 emergency room visits, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Some experts believe that the true numbers are much higher than those reported, because the flu-like symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are so easy to mistake for other conditions. Many people who suffer permanent neurological damage or develop life-threatening conditions from extended exposure to carbon monoxide may never know what’s happening to them.

To protect yourself and your family, it’s important to be able to recognize potential threats.

All Carbon-Based Fuels Release Carbon Monoxide When Burned

When natural gas, gasoline, propane, kerosene, charcoal, wood, and other carbon-based materials burn, they produce carbon monoxide, often abbreviated as “CO,” as a byproduct. These kinds of fuels always produce some CO, but if the combustion process is incomplete, the rate of CO production is much higher. Incomplete combustion usually occurs because of a shortage of oxygen around the flame. The longer a flame burns in an enclosed space, the more it will deplete the available oxygen, and the more CO it will produce.

For this reason, it’s vital never to use outdoor carbon-burning appliances, such as generators and grills, indoors or in any other way they weren’t intended for. Cars also generate large amounts of carbon monoxide, so it’s important never to let one idle in an attached garage. Even wildfires can produce significant CO levels, which is part of why people are advised to stay indoors if they live near an active wildfire, but not near enough to require evacuation.

Improperly Maintained and Ventilated Appliances Can Lead to Lethal CO Buildup

Carbon-burning appliances intended for indoor use need to be engineered and maintained in such a way as to prevent incomplete combustion and vent CO away from living spaces. Unfortunately, deadly malfunctions happen all too often and can involve appliances both old and new.

Some of the most common indoor sources of CO include:

  • Space heaters
  • Furnaces
  • Fireplaces
  • Gas-powered water heaters
  • Gas-powered stoves

Modern heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can also leak CO into living spaces through air conditioning vents. Although air conditioners cannot produce CO themselves, these systems involve complex, interconnected air ducts. If leaks form within that system, exhaust vents for appliances like water heaters can end up contaminating other vents intended for breathing.

Your Landlord Has a Responsibility to Protect You from CO Poisoning

In Georgia, CO detectors are legally required in all one- and two-family homes, as well as townhomes with three or fewer floors, constructed later than 2008. Regardless of whether this describes your home or not, all landlords have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect tenants from foreseeable harm, and accidental CO poisonings in buildings with carbon-burning appliances are easily foreseeable. Reasonable steps to prevent them include having appliances regularly inspected and providing working CO detectors, so that residents will know when they need to evacuate.

If you’ve suffered medical harm or lost a loved one due to CO poisoning in a rented residence, reach out to The Stoddard Firm to learn about how we can help.