Carbon Monoxide: Let's Stop The Madness!

August 5, 2004, Lubbock, TX, Apartment Complex and Day Care Center Evacuated Due to CO Leak; —August 11, Springdale ,AR, 150 Apartment Residents Evacuated Due to Carbon Monoxide Leak; —August 18, Lancaster, OH, 4 Hospitalized, 1 Dead: CO Poisoning From Generator Running in Basement; —August 27, Anaconda, MT, 30 Students Hospitalized From CO Poisoning Due to Cracked PVC Flue Pipe.

These are just a fraction of the stories I found through a Google News search involving high levels of CO poisoning in less than 30 days. There have been at least 12 reported deaths from CO in Florida from generators in the aftermath of Charlie and Frances. And it's not even fall yet, let alone winter!

The heating season is barely starting in some parts of the country, and we're sure to hear more reports about deaths and near death incidents involving carbon monoxide poisoning.

Unfortunately, in most cases involving furnaces, boilers or water heaters, the cause of CO production is never reported. In the Montana case, a PVC pipe broke spewing high levels of CO into the dormitory. Why were there high levels of CO in the flue to begin with?

According to AGA standards, a vented appliance can make 400 ppm of CO. There's no reason that flue cases should contain such high levels. Not only is this dangerous, it usually means wasted energy.

The sad thing is for every incident that makes the news, there are a hundred low and high level poisonings that stay below the radar.

Low level releases are very dangerous because of the ill effects of chronic longterm exposure to levels ranging from 15 to 70 ppm. At these levels, UL listed alarms won't even go off! In fact the UL CO Alarm Standard 2034 allows for 70 ppm for 3 1/2 hours before alarming!

CO is considered the #1 cause of poisoning in the U.S., yet less than 1% of exposures are likely reported.

A number of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome-(SIDS) researchers have published papers linking CO exposure to this mysterious "syndrome," which is the #1 cause of infant death in the world. Other studies are showing CO exposure linked to a variety of illnesses including Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease.

There's no doubt in my mind that as the seriousness of this preventable epidemic moves further into public awareness, our industry will have a large red target painted all over it. After all, if we can't solve, or at least reduce this problem, who can?

One of the barriers is the huge amount of misinformation. Let's take a look at the three biggest CO myths that have been perpetuated in our industry:

MYTH #1 - Cracked Heat Exchangers Make CO. I would like to know who started this myth. CO is produced as a result of incomplete combustion. A cracked heat exchanger might allow products of combustion to enter the air stream. In some rare cases, it can cause flame impingement when air from the blower enters the heat exchanger.

I'm not advocating that we shouldn't replace defective furnaces — we should. The point is: incomplete combustion is what produces CO, not cracks.

MYTH # 2 - If It Meets Code, It's Safe. Code is a passing grade — kind of like getting a D on an exam. Code doesn't provide protection for every situation. We've seen thousands of installations that passed code with flying colors, yet producing obscenely dangerous levels of CO.

MYTH # 3 - Blue Flames Don't Make CO. There's not enough room on this page to cover this pervasive myth, so

I'll challenge you to prove or disprove this one for yourself. There are a number of other myths about CO.

What Can You Do About It?
So what can you do to help this situation, while protecting your company and your customers? Here's five action steps to start with:

  1. Increase awareness in your community. Become your local expert on CO. Participate in civic events, school fairs, etc. Instead of just showing some equipment at the next home show, make CO awareness your theme.
  2. Get your techs trained and certified so they know not only how to test for CO, but also how to fix problems. A CO and draft check should be part of every service call ? year-round.
  3. Get a quality combustion analyzer and draft gauge, and keep them calibrated. Instruments are not a place to cut corners.
  4. Install low level CO monitors that can detect release as low as 15 ppm. Put a low level monitor in every employee's home and truck and watch how quickly word spreads to your customers.
  5. Include CO testing on every clean and check and service call — both heating and air conditioning — it takes minutes and you can charge for it.

There's a lot more to it, far too much to cover in this article, but if you just begin to find out the facts for yourself, you'll be well on your way to keeping you customers safer and healthier.

Dominick Guarino is chairman and CEO of National Comfort Institute, a national training, and certification organization focused on air diagnostics, CO and combustion, and IAQ. He can be reached at 800/633-7058, at domg@ nationalcomfortinstitute.com or online at www.nationalcomfortinstitute.com.

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