Keeping Your Home Free From Two Toxic Gases

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Once the chill starts setting in, you may haul out the gas space heaters or light up the fireplace to help keep your home cozy. But it's important to realize that these and other common household items can emit dangerous gases that can build up in your home to unsafe, even deadly levels.

Here's a quick look at two common gases that can be harmful indoors, especially when temperatures start to plummet and families start looking for ways to stay warm:

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless poisonous gas that's often called the "silent killer." It's produced by fumes from charcoal grills, automobiles, and appliances, stoves, and heaters that run on oil, gas, propane, kerosene, or wood. Exposure to low or moderate levels can cause flu-like symptoms that can quickly become much more serious. At high levels, carbon monoxide can cause loss of consciousness and can kill in a matter of minutes, often without warning and even as people sleep.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can come from natural gas heaters, gas ovens, and gas stoves, all of which may make symptoms much worse for kids with asthma, says a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Looking at 150 2- to 6-year-olds in inner-city Baltimore, the scientists found that those living in homes with high levels of the gas had more frequent asthma flare-ups (with symptoms like coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath). Most of the households used natural gas heating and gas stoves.

What This Means to You

To keep your home free of toxic fumes from nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide the no. 1 thing you can do is have a qualified professional inspect and service these common indoor gas-producers once a year, before the weather gets cold and you really need to use them:

  • wood stoves
  • fireplaces
  • heating systems
  • gas or oil furnaces
  • gas or kerosene spacer heaters
  • gas hot water heaters
  • gas ovens and ranges
  • gas clothes dryers

Not only will this give you peace of mind about dangerous gases, an annual inspection will also ensure that these things are working the way they should — and not costing you extra money or wasting heat.

Here are other pointers, from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to keep your home clear of deadly carbon monoxide, in particular:

  • Make sure furnaces, gas appliances, and gas or kerosene space heaters are always properly ventilated.
  • Have chimneys and flues checked to make sure they aren't blocked by debris (like squirrel or bird's nests or leaves) that could cause hazardous fumes to become trapped inside your home.
  • Only use charcoal grills, camping stoves, lanterns, hibachis, generators, gas-powered tools and equipment (like mowers, snow blowers, weed trimmers, chainsaws, pressure washers, etc.) outsidenever inside your home, garage, basement, any enclosed area (like a camper or tent), or near a window, door, or vent that could draw the fumes inside.
  • Never use gas ovens or gas ranges to heat your home.
  • Recognize symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and get help immediately, especially if many of the members of your household are experiencing these flu-like symptoms at the same time but you all feel OK when you're away from home:
    • headache
    • dizziness
    • lightheadedness
    • weakness
    • nausea or vomiting
    • feeling more tired than usual
    • confusion or hallucinations
    • chest pain
    • shortness of breath
    • vision, walking, or memory problems
  • Never keep your car (or lawnmower) running in your garage, even if the garage door is open. Deadly carbon monoxide pours out from your tailpipe and can quickly accumulate and spread not just throughout your garage, but into your home.
  • Make sure your tailpipe isn't by plugged by snow or other debris before letting your car idle if it's parked outside when it snows, even if you're just trying to heat up the car before getting in it.
  • Install CO detectors on every floor of your home, preferably near potential sources. Make sure to test the devices and check the batteries regularly. And it's wise to put new batteries in smoke detectors and check that they're also up to par while you're at it.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2008

Related Resources

OrganizationAmerican Red Cross The website of the American Red Cross provides information on first aid and safety. It also gives details about enrolling in babysitting classes.
OrganizationCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The mission of the CDC is to promote health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability. Call: (800) CDC-INFO
Web SitePoison Control Centers Use this toll-free number to reach any of the United States' 65 local poison control centers - (800) 222-1222 - or visit the website to find the poison control center nearest you.
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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