"Carbon monoxide" are two very scary words when they're put together like that. The problem is, most people know to be scared of carbon monoxide without really knowing why it's so dangerous or where it comes from. So let's just get the basic facts sorted out.
What Exactly IS Carbon Monoxide? First off, it's not the same thing as carbon dioxide. A lot of people mix up these two gases -- after all, they do sound similar -- without realizing that one gas is typically harmless (carbon dioxide) and the other is extremely toxic and can cause death within minutes (carbon monoxide).
Carbon monoxide is a completely tasteless, odorless, and colorless gas. It's produced by the combustion of certain gases and oils, like the ones used in boilers, car engines, and heating and air conditioning parts. Unfortunately, many home appliances can produce carbon monoxide if they aren't installed properly, and toxic levels of this gas can build up in a house very quickly without anyone realizing it. For this reason, carbon monoxide detectors are usually installed in residential buildings to protect residents against what they can't detect.
What Happens From Carbon Monoxide Poisoning? Because it's a gas, carbon monoxide enters a person's body through the lungs and goes into the bloodstream. It displaces oxygen in the blood and doesn't allow oxygen to travel to the brain, heart, and other internal organs. If extremely toxic levels of carbon monoxide are present, it can cause death in a matter of minutes.
Lower levels will not necessarily lead to death, but they're still considered poisonous and can lead to permanent health problems and neurological damage. The first signs of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to the flu (nausea, dizziness, confusion, fainting, etc.) and any pre-existing respiratory problems can be triggered.
How Can a Homeowner Stay Safe From Carbon Monoxide? If you suspect you could be experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, getting fresh air ASAP is the first thing to do. Going to an emergency room should be the next step, even if you start feeling better; you'll want to know definitively if you've been exposed to carbon monoxide at all, and a simple blood test can determine this.
But as far as preventing carbon monoxide build-up, the best thing to do is to have big appliances (like furnaces and water heaters) checked regularly by a professional -- this is something that most HVAC repair services are happy to do. When buying or replacing heating and air conditioning units and parts, it's always recommended that you have a heating and air conditioning service help you out to ensure that any vents or pipes needing proper ventilation are placed correctly. It's also important to be aware of certain gas-powered appliances that should never be used in enclosed spaces (things like gas grills or kerosene space heaters).
Remember -- prevention is key when it comes to carbon monoxide, and that starts with knowing as much as possible about this dangerous gas.