Try searching online for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning incidents, and you will see a staggering number of news reports from across the country in the last few weeks alone that demonstrate that the silent killer continues to wreak havoc in communities near and far. Recently, a family of five was rescued by the fire department in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a mother was killed and her family overtaken by CO fumes in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and a teen died and 7 others were hospitalized in Alaska when carbon monoxide built up in a garage in Anchorage.
CO poisoning is preventable, but these stories and others serve as real-world reminders to follow fire and life safety codes, know safety tips, and have working CO warning equipment in your home or business.
The threat of CO poisoning is a dangerous safety concern, especially during the cold winter months, when dryer vents, furnaces, stoves, and fireplaces are blocked by snow, trapping dangerous fumes inside. It’s important to pay particular attention to heating equipment, especially those in atypical spaces, which can malfunction and release toxic levels of gas into homes or garages.
For much of the country, winter means high winds, low temperatures and snow-laden tree limbs – a perfect trifecta that leads to power outages and the use of generators. While generators are often considered lifesavers during a blizzard and other weather events, they can also create CO build-up in a home, and inadvertently harm people and pets inside. CO dangers are not just limited to inside the home either; we often hear of CO incidents when people warm up cars in garages or when furnaces are housed there.
U.S. fire departments responded to non-fire CO incidents in which carbon monoxide was found an estimated 80,100 times in 2010, representing a 96 percent increase from incidents reported in 2003. This jump can likely be attributed to an increased use of CO detectors to warn about the presence of CO.
NFPA codes address carbon monoxide in a few ways. NFPA 1 Fire Code advances fire and life safety for the public and first responders as well as property protection by providing a comprehensive, integrated approach to fire code regulation and hazard management. It also requires carbon monoxide detection equipment in certain scenarios. These requirements are extracted from NFPA 101: Life Safety Code®, the most widely used source for strategies to protect people based on building construction, protection, and occupancy features in both new and existing structures. Being aware of CO equipment provisions is extremely important for a fire inspector and AHJ, as well as for consumers and residents. The 2015 edition of NFPA 1 makes the following provisions:
Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detection and Warning Equipment
Carbon monoxide (CO) detection and warning equipment, where required by another section of NFPA 1, shall be provided in accordance with NFPA 720, Standard for the Installation of Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detection and Warning Equipment. NFPA 720 contains requirements for CO detection and warning equipment intended to protect lives by warning occupants of the presence of CO in sufficient time to allow occupants to escape or take other appropriate action. The 2015 edition of NFPA 1 references NFPA 720 where such equipment is mandated by another section of the Code. CO detection and warning equipment is not required in all occupancies. It is not currently required to be installed in any existing occupancy. Use of the code is typically limited to new occupancies in which inhabitants might be asleep or have decreased capability for self-preservation and where vehicles, combustion equipment, or appliances are present.
Occupancies requiring CO detection and warning equipment encompass a wide variety of buildings. Educational occupancies and day-care homes, which cater to children, are among those requiring detectors. Additionally, the code requires new and existing health care occupancies containing fireplaces to have warning equipment. Any residence including new one- and two- family dwellings, new lodging or rooming houses, new hotels and dormitories, and new apartment buildings, require CO detectors.
It is important to remember that all CO detectors and alarms have a limited service life — usually about 5 to 10 years. CO detection equipment must be replaced at the end of its service life. NFPA 720 requires the recommended replacement date to be marked on the device. The requirements for CO detection and warning equipment are intended to decrease the risk to building occupants posed by exposure to the natural gas released by hydrocarbon fuels when they burn incompletely. Occupants are at a risk of CO poisoning anytime combustion gases from equipment in a building (such as a fuel-fired furnace) are not properly vented or when CO gas enters a building from another space, like an attached garage.
CO gas is a tasteless, colorless, and odorless killer. It enters the blood stream and takes the place of oxygen – depriving the brain and heart in the process. Warning signs include nausea, headache, breathing issues, fatigue, mental confusion, loss of muscle control, and loss of consciousness. Long term heart and brain damage can result. Without detection and warning equipment in place, the presence of CO is impossible to detect. Take steps to block the silent killer from entering your home or business by familiarizing yourself with the codes that protect you and by learning more about CO risks, warning, and resources.
Contributing Author: Kristin Bigda, Principal Fire Protection Engineer, Staff Liaison to NFPA 1, Fire Code, National Fire Protection Association