Protect Yourself Against This Invisible Threat

When heaters and other appliances that use combustible fuel such as propane or natural gas aren’t installed properly, or when they have cracks or blocked vents, a toxic gas called carbon monoxide can seep into your home. Carbon monoxide results from incomplete combustion, and while safe appliances vent trace amounts of carbon monoxide outside, if something gets in the way of that venting, this colorless, odorless toxin can cause injury or even death.

Carbon monoxide should not be confused with carbon dioxide. Carbon monoxide is poisonous; carbon dioxide is a natural biproduct of respiration (we breathe it out every time we exhale). Even a small amount of carbon monoxide is dangerous, while it takes a lot of carbon dioxide to pose any risk at all.

In most heaters, there’s a heat exchanger which keeps the interior air separate from the gas flames and fumes, much like a tea kettle keeps flames from the water on the stove. If the heat exchanger has a crack, fumes from the combustion get into the air we breathe. Without a carbon monoxide detector, it’s almost impossible to recognize this is happening. The gas is invisible, has no taste or smell, and it slowly numbs your mind until you are incapacitated. At moderate levels it causes headaches, dizziness, nausea, and fainting—and at high levels it can be fatal.

Every year, people die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Here’s a list of ways to protect yourself:

  1. Do not use your gas stove to heat your apartment or home. Stoves were intended for cooking, not heating whole rooms. Misusing gas appliances can lead to dangerously high carbon monoxide levels.
  2. Don’t use an outdoor heater indoors. These kerosene- or propane-powered heaters that are so popular for outdoor areas should never be used in enclosed spaces. They are designed to emit carbon monoxide where there is plenty of air volume.
  3. Don’t use a generator indoors (or too close to an open window). Like outdoor heaters, generators are designed to emit carbon monoxide where it can become diluted with outside air.
  4. Have appliances inspected by certified professionals annually.
  5. Have chimneys and flues inspected by certified professionals annually.
  6. Never start a vehicle in a closed garage.
  7. Never use a charcoal grill indoors (a lack of smoke doesn’t mean a lack of carbon monoxide).

The very best way to protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning is to make sure you have a functioning carbon monoxide detector in every essential room in your home, right next to the smoke alarm. In fact, they now make combination smoke-carbon monoxide alarms. Those who know me know I am not a fan of government regulation to put it mildly, but requiring smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms in every home is one of the few regulations I completely support.

If you think you may be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, or if your carbon monoxide alarm goes off, throw open the windows as you exit your home. And seek medical treatment. Getting fresh air isn’t enough. Depending on how much carbon monoxide you’ve breathed, you may need pure oxygen to reoxygenate your blood appropriately.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.

Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 45 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *