The recent downtown Boston carbon monoxide poisoning incident underscores the danger that carbon monoxide can pose to humans. About 30 people were sickened last Saturday at a spa, and 8 people were hospitalized. The source of the carbon monoxide was believed to be the commercial dryers the spa uses to dry its towels.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is created as a by-product of natural gas combustion. People exposed to even low levels of carbon monoxide can experience symptoms of varying severity, including dizziness, nausea, vomiting, disorientation and chest pain. Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide in the air can cause unconsciousness or death. People exposed to CO while sleeping can die without experiencing any symptoms at all.

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when the body substitutes carbon monoxide for oxygen. CO in the bloodstream binds to red blood cells and prevents oxygen from reaching the cell. Immediate medical treatment is required to prevent physical complications from worsening.

Preventing CO from accumulating in a closed space is essential. All gas appliances must be vented to the outside of the living space to ensure that CO cannot escape into the building’s interior. Gas stoves are typically not vented to the outside because they typically burn all fuel completely.

Build-ups of food, grease and other debris should be eliminated to help ensure that all gas burns completely while the stove or oven is in operation for cooking. Installation of a vented range hood, however, can help ensure that any unburned fuel is vented safely away. Never use a gas range or stove to heat the living space.

Annually, homeowners should have appliances that burn gas or coal inspected for any damage that may allow CO to vent improperly into the living space. This includes stoves, water heaters, gas dryers, furnaces, gas fireplaces and other similar appliances. Portable fuel-burning heaters and generators should not be used indoors under any circumstances.

Homeowners should also have their chimneys inspected annually, and any debris or buildup should be removed to help ensure that exhaust gases vent properly away from the building. Ventilation pipes for gas appliances should never be repaired with duct tape or other porous repair materials, as the repair can become a route for CO to enter the living space.

Ventilation pipes should also be properly installed by a trained installation professional. Horizontal pipes should be inclined slightly to discourage CO from entering the living space at the pipe joints.
Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed in the living space, and should be tested periodically. Devices should be replaced according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

If you have questions about your gas-fired appliances, or would like to arrange an inspection, please contact Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 362-0377 anytime. We’ll be happy to test your gas appliances, their connections and ventilation pipes for CO leakage.

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