03/17/2014 04:37 EDT | Updated 05/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Key facts about carbon monoxide

Three members of a Brampton, Ont., family died of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning after police say at least one portable propane heater was used inside a home northwest of Toronto. Here are a few key facts about the silent killer and some safety tips:

What is it?

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas and can accumulate whenever fuel is burned. Common fuels include wood, natural gas, oil and propane. It is readily produced by internal combustion engines.


Why is it so dangerous?

If allowed to accumulate, it can fatally starve the human body of oxygen. Hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in the bloodstream, normally has a spot reserved for the oxygen molecule. Carbon monoxide binds to that spot instead, preventing oxygen from being effectively carried to the rest of the body. High exposure to carbon monoxide can be fatal. According to Statistics Canada, 380 people died of accidental CO poisoning between 2000 and 2009.


What are the dangers in the home?

Carbon monoxide can be generated from any fuel-based home appliance. These include stoves, barbecues, fireplaces, furnaces, water heaters, lawn mowers, power generators and tobacco smoke.


What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

Early warnings of CO poisoning include headaches, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, shortness of breath and impaired motor functions. If exposed to low levels of the gas over a long time, the symptoms can include chest pain, poor vision and dizziness.


What precautions can I take?

Health Canada says every home should have at least one carbon monoxide detector installed to warn if CO levels pose a threat. An ideal location for a detector would be hallways outside bedrooms, since noise from the alarm could potentially wake up occupants in case of emergency. Health Canada recommends only buying detectors that have been approved by either the Canadian Standards Association or the Underwriters Laboratories of Canada


How can I prevent a dangerous CO incident?

Make sure all fuel-burning appliances and wood stoves are properly installed and professionally serviced. Have chimneys cleaned and appliances inspected annually. Do not run power generators or oil-based space heaters in enclosed spaces, including inside the home or an attached garage. Don't leave motors running in the garage, even when the door is open. Keep tobacco smoke out of doors.


Is CO poisoning treatable?

CO poisoning is usually addressed by administering pure oxygen as quickly as possible, either through a mask or by spending time in a hyperbaric chamber.


What legislation exists concerning CO and CO detectors?

Currently only Ontario and Saskatchewan have laws in place requiring most homes to have carbon monoxide detectors installed. Advocates behind those laws are pushing to have the rules implemented across the country.


(Health Canada, The Canadian Press)

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