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The reason why carbon monoxide (CO) is sometimes also referred to as the “silent killer” is because the deadly gas is undetectable by smell, taste, or sight. It’s estimated that more than 400 people lose their lives each year from exposure to it while a whopping 100,000 visit the emergency departments. 

If you or someone in your household has suffered from CO poisoning, identifying its source is critical to prevent further exposure as well as save others’ lives. It will also go a long way in building your case against the people responsible for this catastrophe. 

If the poisoning took place in your home, the cause might be a malfunctioning appliance like a gas heater or stove, and if it happened somewhere else, you might be able to file a premises liability lawsuit against the property owner. 

someone installing a smoke alarm

What Causes Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

You can get exposed to CO in a number of ways, and it almost always happens indoors. The most common culprit is anything that burns fuel. For instance, if a furnace, gas stove, water heater, fireplace, or generator is not working properly or is not vented correctly, it can release carbon monoxide into your home. Using charcoal grills, generators, or car engines in enclosed spaces like garages can also cause CO to buildup.

If your car or truck is left running in a garage or a confined space, it can produce CO. In boats, the risk comes from engines, generators, and cooking ranges.
Homes are not the only places. Warehouses, garages, and construction sites where equipment like gas-powered generators or propane-fueled forklifts are used, can be at risk as well. 

What is the Carbon Monoxide Detector Mandate in New York?

To protect New Yorkers from the invisible dangers of CO and fires, the city enacted the Carbon Monoxide Detector Mandate back in 2004. It states that a CO detector must be installed in all one- and two-family homes, apartment houses, hotels, motels, lodging houses, rooming houses, dormitories, rectories, convents, and group homes. The risk for CO exposure increases during winter when homes are heated more frequently, so these detectors are non-negotiable in residential units. 

The law dictates that detectors must be installed within 15 feet of the primary entrance to any room used for sleeping purposes in residential buildings that use fossil fuels such as coal, kerosene, oil, wood, gas, and other petroleum products. This goes for any building that has appliances, devices, or systems that may emit carbon monoxide or have an attached garage​​​​. 

Responsibilities under this mandate are divided between tenants and residential owners:

Tenants: All tenants should regularly test their CO and smoke detectors, replace batteries at least twice a year, and immediately replace batteries when a low-battery alarm is heard. They are also required to reimburse the building owner for any detector that is stolen, removed, missing, or inoperable during their occupancy. The reimbursement rate is $25 per detector or $50 for joint smoke/carbon monoxide detectors in Class A buildings (permanent occupancy) and private dwellings (1-2 family homes). 

Landlords: They must install operational CO and smoke detectors and replace them when necessary, especially upon expiration of its useful life or when a new tenant moves in. Each alarm should be equipped with an end-of-life alarm. Landlords also need to provide their tenants with information regarding the testing and maintenance of detectors, and educate them about carbon monoxide poisoning.

What are the Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

What makes CO poisoning particularly dangerous is that its symptoms can easily be mistaken for those of the flu or food poisoning. So, keep an eye out for the following signs and head over to your nearest medical facility right away if multiple people in your home seem to be feeling the same: 

  • Headache is generally the first and most common symptom.
  • You may feel light-headed or dizzy
  • You might feel like you are nauseous and going to vomit
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing can occur
  • In severe cases, you might collapse and pass out
  • You may also feel unusually tired or weak
  • You may have difficulty thinking straight; you may get confused or disoriented

The severity of these symptoms will depend on the level and duration of exposure to CO. Long-term exposure to even tiniest levels of CO is known to damage the heart and brain. 

If you suspect there is a CO leak in your home or workplace, open doors and windows wide to allow fresh air in. This will help to dissipate the highly toxic gas. If the symptoms are mild and you are able to do so, turn off any potential sources of CO, like gas appliances or heaters. But ONLY if it is safe – do not put yourself at risk. 

If someone is showing severe signs, move them (and others) to an open location, away from the source and call 911. Until the site has been declared safe by a professional, do not go back into the building.

smoke alarm going off in a house

How Can Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Impact You  

There are two levels of exposure to CO: acute and chronic. Acute exposure refers to inhaling high levels of CO over a short period. This can range from minutes to a few hours. Symptoms of this degree of poisoning are more immediate and can be severe. They include headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, loss of consciousness, and in extreme cases, can be fatal. The only effective treatment in these cases is immediate administration of 100% oxygen, preferably a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. 

Chronic poisoning means you have been exposed to low levels of CO but over a longer period, from several days to months. Its symptoms are subtler and can feel like your everyday flu or fatigue, such as persistent headaches and dizziness. With that said, if not addressed in time, this can cause: 

  • Impaired memory and concentration, confusion, and, in severe cases, permanent brain damage
  • Coronary artery disease or heart attack 
  • Chronic fatigue, weakness, and lethargy 
  • Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and irritability 
  • Low birth weight, developmental delays, and in some cases, birth defects (in pregnant women) 
  • Delayed Neurological Sequelae (DNS). This is a unique condition where symptoms can re-emerge or worsen weeks after initial exposure, including cognitive dysfunction and movement disorders.
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