In response to the Chicago Tribune article: "CO Leaks Cause 2 Deaths", January 28, 2013 

This is yet another sad story of what can happen when a combustible fixture, like your furnace or water heater, leaks carbon monoxide into your home. Over the weekend a homeowner found his elderly mother unresponsive but alive in her room. They took her to the hospital but she died. He later found his daughter in the same state, she also died. He was then able to get the rest of the family out of the house and to the hospital and fortunately, although they all became sick, they all survived.

In a quote to the local news this man mentioned, “We have not had any work done to our boiler recently.”  So what does that mean? Right away people want to look for what was most recently done to find the cause of a tragedy like this. My question is “What was not done?”  Many times as equipment ages things can happen that cause the equipment to fail or become dangerous. Something as simple as an animal falling into a chimney can cause all the carbon monoxide from a fixture to be released into a home. There are literally hundreds of things that can be caught during a preventative maintenance inspection of a piece of equipment. A skilled and licensed technician might even find that the equipment was installed improperly from day one. The most difficult thing about carbon monoxide, or any other defect, is that the symptoms may not be constant.

In the above story the first responders tested twice and they found no carbon monoxide in the structure. It wasn’t until they tested a third time near the equipment that it was discovered. You may ask how could this happen? Very easily, actually. When the first responders arrived, the occupants had already been in and out of the structure (ventilating the inside atmosphere). The first responders did the same thing by going in and out many times. Typically carbon monoxide is the result of poor combustion and venting and is magnified by the eventual reduction of oxygen in a space.  When the equipment is creating the carbon monoxide it is at the same time reducing the oxygen available for further combustion and this continues until it hits a tipping point and the carbon monoxide levels literally explode. This entire process can be masqueraded and missed if during the process someone opens a door, turns on a bath fan, anything of that sort.

Okay, so am I safe if I have a carbon monoxide detector? Not necessarily. The family above had one in the mechanical room. The problem with an off-the-shelf detector is that it will not pick up low levels of carbon monoxide. In fact, the parts per million needs to be in excess of 100 for a lengthy time before it will even alarm. That means that if a space is periodically ventilated by say opening a door, you may never know you have a carbon monoxide issue. The levels are reduced too quickly. The best way to protect yourself is to first have a low level monitor. A low level monitor will detect carbon monoxide as low as 5 parts per million and will notify you of anything over 9 parts per million. This is important because the negative health affects start as low as 9-15 parts per million. Secondly, you should have the carbon monoxide monitor on every level of the home and immediately adjacent to the bedrooms. Having a monitor on every level and having your equipment maintained by a qualified, licensed professional at least once a year will go a long way to keeping you and family safe and healthy.