Think you’re safe from CO poisoning? Think again


When a Toronto family was recently rushed to hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning, it was a stark reminder that the so-called ‘silent killer’ can strike any time, and hard. Two family members were already unconscious by the time emergency crews arrived.

The reality is that carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning poses a serious threat: it’s the number one cause of accidental poisoning deaths in Canada. Even if it doesn’t kill you, it can cause brain damage or leave you with permanent health problems.


Fortunately, the Toronto family was lucky: all three survived, despite levels close to 900 parts per million reported in their home, more than 30 times the norm. 

The cause? A leaky furnace. 

Furnaces, like anything else that burns fuel, including gas ovens, can produce CO. Chimneys blocked by squirrels’ nests or other debris have also been known to create a CO hazard, ditto for improper venting, cracked furnace heat exchangers or car exhaust fumes seeping in from a garage. As well, CO can accumulate if too much air is being consumed by a fireplace or exhausted by kitchen/bathroom fans.

That’s why every homeowner needs to ensure their appliances, furnaces and fireplaces, as well as venting systems and chimneys, are serviced and maintained by a qualified technician or heating contractor. Unlike natural gas with its distinctive ‘rotten egg’ smell, CO has no scent. You cannot see, smell or taste it. So qualified service providers are your best line of defence.

That’s also why every home needs at least one carbon monoxide detector – ideally at knee-height, adjacent to the sleeping area of your home. If the detector’s alarm sounds, open all doors and windows to ventilate. If you can’t find the problem and the alarm continues, contact your local gas utility or a qualified heating contractor to check your fuel-burning equipment.

Signs of CO Poisoning

If you’re already experiencing signs of CO poisoning, then make sure everyone leaves the home immediately and gets medical help. Call 911 or your local fire department. Physical signs of poisoning can vary from flu-like symptoms and headaches, to nausea, dizziness, burning eyes, confusion, drowsiness and even loss of consciousness. The elderly, children, pets and people with heart or respiratory conditions often feel the effects sooner and can act as harbingers of a CO leak.

There are also signs within your home that should raise red flags. These include stuffy air; a sharp odour of gas when your fuel-burning appliances go on; the pilot light of your fuel-burning appliances going out; a chalky powder forming on the chimney/exhaust vent pipe or soot building up around it; and excessive moisture forming on windows and walls.

Stay informed and take the necessary steps to keep your family safe. And remember, your top line of defence will always be a qualified service provider who can install, service and maintain all your gas burning equipment and appliances to make sure they are working safely.

For a list of contractors in your area, visit HRAI Contractor Locator or call 1-877-467-HRAI (4724). 





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