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Carbon monoxide: Staying safe from the silent killer

Carbon monoxide poisoning claims hundreds of lives each year. Here's what you need to know to keep your home safe.

Jen Weigel

February 29, 2012

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Carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer. This odorless, colorless, tasteless gas claims approximately 300 lives a year and is the No. 1 cause of poisoning deaths in the nation, according to the National Fire Protection Association. If you haven't tested your CO detectors in a while, it may be time for a replacement.

"Three years is usually the end of life for these things," said Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis. "I also suggest testing them monthly."

Matkaitis said there's a warning sound that a carbon monoxide detector will make when it's nearing the end of its life that is often mistaken for a warning that the battery is low.

"When your detector goes off because there is carbon monoxide in the home, that noise is pretty shrill," he said. "But the noise it makes when it's near the end of life is similar to the sound you hear when your fire alarm battery is low -- frequent beeps.

"But any model that was made before 2009 might not have this feature so I recommend throwing out anything older than 2009."

Carbon monoxide can be produced by gas or oil appliances such as clothing dryers, water heaters, furnaces, ovens and space heaters. But Matkaitis said even fireplaces can be a danger if not cleaned frequently.

"If you have a regular fireplace, you need to (check) on the chimneys," he said. "If they get blocked they will bump carbon monoxide back into your house."

Here are some more tips from Matkaitis to keep your home safe from carbon monoxide:

Have a detector on every floor of your home. "You want to get them close to your sleeping rooms," he said. "Sometimes if you put them too close to the kitchen you might set it off, especially if you have a gas stove."

Don't put one too close to your furnace. "Most of the failures are from blocked furnaces and blocked furnace flues, yes -- but our website guidelines will tell you not to put one right next to your furnace, in your garage or in your kitchen," Matkaitis said. "And because carbon monoxide doesn't gravitate to the ceiling the way smoke does, you can have the detectors in your outlets. Just have a battery in there too in case you lose power. The detectors that plug into your outlet with a backup battery run between $20 and $40 and you can find them all over." (This paragraph contains corrected information. See below.)

Don't forget seniors. "Be sure to check in on the seniors in your life," he said. "Just take a walkthrough in their home and check the manufacturing date on the detectors. If you can't find one, throw them out immediately."

Watch for flu-like symptoms. "If everybody in the house is suddenly sick and if you don't have a carbon monoxide detector, it could be carbon monoxide that's causing you to be sick," he said.

If the detector sounds, evacuate. "Get everyone out of the house immediately and call the fire department or the gas company, and they'll bring in a sniffer, which is a handheld detector that (checks for) carbon monoxide," Matkaitis said. "You don't want to take this lightly. If the alarm sounds, get out. Period."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

This story contains corrected information. In the original story, Matkaitis said to put a detector near the furnace, but that is his personal recommendation and not the direct advice of the office of the state fire marshal. Find the official guidelines at http://www.sfm.illinois.gov/commercial/buildings/co.aspx.