Chimney and Fireplace Safety: Facts You Need to Know to Protect Your Family from Carbon Monoxide

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A clear and concise description of carbon monoxide, its effects and dangers. Informative information about carbon monoxide in the home and steps to take to ensure you and your family are protected.

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Thank goodness the fireplace didn’t work, as that is what prompted the detection of the problem!

The dog days of summer are time to be wary of emissions from barbecues, gas grilles and the dangers of exhaust from water craft. It is also time to prepare for the cooler months soon to be upon us by inspecting home appliances, chimneys , exhaust flues and the like.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. It is produced by the incomplete burning of material such as gasoline, natural gas, kerosene, liquid petroleum, oil, charcoal, coal, wood and tobacco. The primary source of CO emissions in today’s world is gasoline-powered automobiles.

Carbon monoxide prevents the body from using oxygen efficiently, causing asphyxiation (suffocation). CO typically remains inside the body for hours.

The effects depend on how much carbon monoxide is in the air, how long it is breathed, and how healthy an individual is. Exposure to carbon monoxide can include headache, loss of alertness, symptoms similar to the flu such as nausea, fatigue, fast breathing, confusion, disorientation and overall weakness. In addition, it can cause chest pain in people with heart disease. CO can also impair judgment. High concentrations of CO can cause seizures, unconsciousness and death. The longer a person breathes CO, the worse the effects can be.

Boston Brick & Stone of Pasadena, CA is launching an advisory campaign on the effects of carbon monoxide. The company comes across many CO hazards on a daily basis inspecting chimneys in Los Angeles County.

In 1994 there were literally hundreds of thousands of chimneys damaged or destroyed by the Northridge earthquake. Many of these chimneys were incorrectly repaired. Boston Brick & Stone has discovered over the course of inspecting more than 50,000 chimneys that approximately 1 in every 20 fireplace systems, is a potential Carbon Monoxide health hazard or threat. Their inspectors have seen entire families sickly with what looked like common cold symptoms moving around the house like the walking dead.

During an inspection a mother told their inspector her family had all been sick since the beginning of November. It was now February and when they tried to use their recently repaired fireplace it didn’t work. Upon inspection it was found that the contractor who rebuilt the chimney that last summer completely sealed off the gas water heater and the furnace flues, (a common mistake) allowing all the products of combustion from these two appliances to come up through the floors from the crawl space. Once November came the furnace started working day and night poisoning the family in the process.

"Thank goodness the fireplace didn’t work, as that is what prompted the detection of the problem!" said Dave Laverdiere , Owner of Boston Brick and Stone.

The company has seen that 1 in 100 of these chimneys have had their entire furnace and water heater flues sealed off in the chimney by a contractor who did not know what he was doing. Most of these did have working fireplaces so one cannot equate a working fireplace to a working appliance flue.

A house with a gas furnace working properly may have a CO concentration in the air of 1-2 ppm (ppm is Parts Per Million, an expression that compares how many parts of CO, or any other gas, there are for every million parts of regular air).

Another example is having all four gas burners on the stove on for 20 minutes. This can cause the level to rise to 35 or even 120 ppm. A furnace that isn’t working properly can raise the level to 1,000 ppm - high enough to cause death in a couple of hours in a well sealed house.

If it were not for the fact that these families were living in old homes that have a tremendous amount of ventilation through the doors, windows and even the walls and ceilings, they would surely have suffered serious long-term health consequences. Even with the older ventilated homes some would not have been as lucky as there are those who are more at risk than others.

Carbon Monoxide can be fatal to some and cause serious health problems to others. Scientists currently consider 35-ppm (which means that there is 35 parts of CO to every million parts of regular air) exposure over a single hour to be the maximum. You can expect the CO concentration in outdoor air to be below 1-2 ppm, except near streets and highways. Exposure of less than 9 ppm CO (over an 8-hour average) in living areas is currently considered safe but I personally expect these levels to be reevaluated in the near future because these guidelines may not provide sufficient protection for people with heart or lung problems.

Effects of exposure to CO are generally worse for older people, unborn children and people with heart, circulatory, or lung disease. At the time of this writing there really is no known safe level of carbon monoxide.

If you suspect a person has CO poisoning get them outside into fresh air immediately. Call 911 and/or the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. Then open as many windows in the home as possible.

When you call for help, report that you think there is carbon monoxide poisoning. After the emergency, you must have the appliances, which burn gas or fuel (e.g., furnace, oil burner, stove or hot water heater, etc.) inspected by a professional and repaired if needed.

Having your fireplace inspected at regular intervals by a competent inspector is another well-advised safety precaution. Any fireplace that does not completely evacuate the products of combustion for any reason is a potential CO threat.

The inspector will always recommend solutions to any problems or potential problems found during the inspection.

It is recommended that Carbon Monoxide detectors be placed throughout the house, especially around the fireplace.

Where a gas log fireplace is set up Carbon Monoxide detectors are a must. Because CO has the same density as air and therefore simply moves around the room with the air we recommend the installation of at least three CO detectors in any room which has a gas log set up.

The detectors are relatively inexpensive and are installed by almost anyone who can change a light bulb. Be sure to buy the type that has an audible alarm. Hardware stores sell these for between $35.00 and $50.00 each.

A gas log fireplace with a damper installed must have the damper locked in the open position. See Dampers in Gas Log Fireplaces on Boston Brick and Stone's website at http://www.bostonbrick.com for additional information.

Boston Brick and Stone is located at 2005 Lincoln Avenue in Pasadena, CA and can be reached at 626-296-7700.

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Shawn Rhine
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