I resurrected and updated this article that I wrote in 1998, because it still is relevant today.
I almost woke up dead . . .
My house tried to kill me. No, I'm not kidding. Just a few (more like twenty-three) years ago, I was living in a rental home and I am very lucky that I didn't wake up dead one morning. It was a bit strange how I figured out that my home was a potential killer. I had turned 25 that fall and I was depressed. I didn't know why, but I was. I was tired all the time and I had headaches, bad ones. All I could think was "How could I feel so old at 25?" I thought it had to do with my birthday (which seems laughable to me now) until one day as I rounded the corner by a large heat register I smelled a strange odor. I called the gas company. It turned out that I had a carbon monoxide leak in my house. The reason I kept feeling progressively worse had little to do
with my birthday, except that it was autumn. Autumn meant that as it got cooler I kept my house more closed up and used my furnace more and thus the carbon monoxide was becoming increasingly concentrated. I want to stress that I while I smelled something in my house, carbon monoxide is odorless. I never really knew what it was I smelled. If it hadn't been for luck, I might not have lived to share what I learned.
I would go to work and get a little fresh air. By the time school was over I had a raging headache and all I wanted to do was go home and go to sleep. When I would get home, I couldn't seem to move. I would crash on the couch for the rest of the night, which has never been a typical habit for me.
Once I realized I was being poisoned by carbon monoxide, I moved out. It took two weeks to replace the furnace which was the main suspect. Meanwhile, a well-meaning friend had given me a puppy thinking I might be more apt to notice signs sooner if another living thing was in my house and started acting sluggish. My mother, more practically, sent me a carbon monoxide detector. Of course, I also armed myself with a few more facts:
1. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, deadly gas. Because you can't see, taste or smell it, carbon monoxide can kill you before you know it's there!
2. The great danger of carbon monoxide is its attraction to hemoglobin in the bloodstream. When breathed in, carbon monoxide replaces the oxygen which cells need to function. CO rapidly accumulates in the blood causing flu‑like symptoms like headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizzy spells, confusion and irritability (my students were noticing this symptom with me). At increased levels, vomiting, loss of consciousness and eventually brain damage (jury is still out for the long-term effects it had on me, just in case you were wondering) and death may result.
3. Carbon monoxide is a by‑product of combustion when fuel is burned. It is produced by common home appliances, such as gas or oil furnaces, gas appliances, gas water heaters or space heaters, fireplaces, charcoal grills and wood burning stoves. Fumes from automobiles and gas powered lawn mowers also contain carbon monoxide and can enter a home through walls or doorways if an engine is left running in an attached garage.
4. If a home is vented properly and is free from appliance malfunctions or air pressure fluctuations/blockages, carbon monoxide will most likely be safely vented to the outside.
Frequently today's energy efficient homes are tightly sealed and can trap CO in a home year round. Furnace exchangers can crack and vents can become blocked. Sometimes fireplaces can backdraft which can force contaminated air back into the home. Exhaust fans on range hoods, clothes dryers and bathroom fans can actually pull combustion products into the home.
5. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends installing at least one carbon monoxide detector per household, near the sleeping area. Additional detectors on every level of the home provide extra protection.
The dog wasn’t nearly as useful as the detector, which went off several other times while I lived in the home and could have saved my life. Incidentally, about a year after my first problem with the CO in my home I learned that a family that lived in that home almost 30 years prior was also poisoned, but were rescued when someone went to check on the family after they didn’t show up to school and work. They were sleeping, a little more than they meant to be, aided by the gas they were breathing. I’m sure they were glad to wake up alive. I was too! It turns out I had plenty to be alive for these past few decades!