Getting very sleepy...
November 14, 2007 6:57 PM   Subscribe

This morning, my boyfriend overslept for hours and hours - and woke up to the carbon monoxide detector going off. Now what?

The detector's supposed to be sensitive to carbon monoxide and explosive gases. He lives in an old house, with tons of gas combustion-powered appliances - gas stove/range, water heater, furnace, (I think) dryer - and crappy ventilation. How does he pinpoint the source of the trouble? And what does he do in the meantime? Obviously, he's tried to get in touch with his landlord. I think he needs to clear out of there, starting tonight, and then start looking for a new place to live (this is the latest in a long line of issues with the property). Right? Or will he be, quote, "Fine with the windows open"?

(I think there's always been something fishy about that house. We both constantly feel groggy and weird in it - I notice it most, since I don't live there. When I stay there, I notice headaches a lot more frequently than I do at home. And we both get mysterious mild flus - general lethargy, malaise, fogginess - that just linger and linger. Invariably, he feels different - more energetic, clearer, less run-down - when he goes on vacation or travels or is even out of the house for a day (he works at home, and a lot of days he's in the house for 20 hours out of 24). Is this possibly long-term exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide? It's never occurred to either of us that this is a possibility until now, but it sure would make sense.)

Anyway - he needs to Not. Sleep. There. For. Now. Yes?
posted by peachfuzz to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Response by poster: Maybe combustion isn't the right way to put it - the furnace isn't powered by a V8 or anything - devices with a pilot light is what I mean.
posted by peachfuzz at 6:59 PM on November 14, 2007


I would suggest calling the fire department or the local power company (that supplies natural gas)...

And, then move...
posted by HuronBob at 7:03 PM on November 14, 2007


Yeah, that's...like...pretty serious. He shouldn't sleep there until professionals (like the Fire Department or somebody) check things out.
posted by infinitywaltz at 7:11 PM on November 14, 2007


Yes, he needs not to sleep there.
posted by Airhen at 7:11 PM on November 14, 2007


YES: he/you really should NOT sleep there. the groggyness etc that you've described is carbon monoxide poisoning.
(on preview: exactly like HuronBob says)
posted by The_Auditor at 7:11 PM on November 14, 2007


Leave the building. Call 911. Now.

Don't think this is a 911 emergency? It is. See (for example) number 9 on this page or the numerous other hits on Google under carbon monoxide 911.
posted by zachlipton at 7:15 PM on November 14, 2007


Get the utility company to come do a check for CO levels. They should do this for free; tell them he had an alarm and they should come out ASAP. Then get a copy of their report and show it to the landlord if the level is above normal, and insist that every single gas burning appliance be replaced or he moves immediately.

And yes, he might have been lucky to wake up this morning at all. CO poisoning kills people in their sleep most of the time, so he needs to sleep in another place. I'm pretty sure he could even get back the cost of staying in a hotel from his landlord if it came to that (although he might have to take it to small claims).
posted by slow graffiti at 7:16 PM on November 14, 2007


Or, if nothing else, call the fire department's non-emergency number.
posted by zachlipton at 7:18 PM on November 14, 2007


Best answer: He calls the landlord immediately and stays at your house until things are sorted. I got carbon monixide poisoning from my old furnace and this is what happened, just to brief you. This is nothing to screw around with.

- I was waking up with splitting almost-puking headaches for two days
- doctor said "check your furnace and see if it goes away when it's off" it did.
- the landlord sent a furnace guy over
- the furnace guy measured what was coming out of the furnace and said "do not turn this on again when you are in the house. Do not sleep here"
- I contacted the landlord who sent over an electric space heater
- I tried to get him to fix the furnace
- he refused (this was in seattle, not that cold but still)
- I called the Housing Dept to get them to inspect the place and put the heat on him
- Seattle had an earthquake which preempted the inspection
- my house was condemned without them even looking at it
- I had to move, quickly, though I cut a deal with my landlord to let me stay there during the day and not have the furnace on and sleep elsewhere
- since my landlord refused to fix the furnace I got a settlement from him. Since I was low income, this was about 2K to put towards moving expenses due to the situation.

In any case, just be prepared that once your boyfriend starts to call people things may move quickly so make sure he has options and he's exploring them. Most landlords will not be as shady as mine was, but furnace repairs are expensive.
posted by jessamyn at 7:18 PM on November 14, 2007


Listen to the above.

I know of people that have died from this. Take it very seriously.
posted by konolia at 7:28 PM on November 14, 2007


Best answer: all good advice. don't sleep there anymore. keeping the windows open isn't good enough, because carbon monoxide is heavier than air and settles on the floor--unless your windows reach the floor, it won't vent anything but air. and someone will die. really.

again, don't screw around with this. call the utility company, get the air checked, and notify the landlord immediately.

and save all receipts related to his displacement. if the landlord can't repair the place in a reasonable amount of time, it's reasonable to ask for a settlement and no penalty for breaking the lease.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:31 PM on November 14, 2007


Best answer: The detector's supposed to be sensitive to carbon monoxide and explosive gases.

Is it installed properly? I'm not sure if it varies by detector type or not... but the one I have had to be installed on a wall at eye-level rather than way up on the ceiling, where I would have otherwise thought was the default detector location.

As I understand it, if it's an eye-level type and it's installed on the ceiling, it won't go off when there's a dangerous CO concentration at normal human-usage (siting/sleeping) heights. When it actually goes off, there's actually a much much higher concentration at human height.

After the problem gets fixed, or he moves, check out the CO detectors for proper installation.
posted by CKmtl at 7:36 PM on November 14, 2007


Nthing all of the above. Our detector went off at 2am one night. I was pretty sure the detector was faulty but called the town fire dept. anyway. They were here within 10 minutes; that's how serious they consider it. In this case, it was a faulty detector - but we had no headaches.
posted by Kevin S at 7:42 PM on November 14, 2007


Best answer: Okay -- went through this last year. The carbon monoxide detectors went off in a lower level unit in my brownstown. Tenants called the fire department -- as they should have. The levels were indeed elevated.

Do the same. Call the fire department. Get the levels tested ASAP.

Since gas furnaces power the heat in my building the gas company also came, tested and immediately turned off the natural gas flow to the building.

First thought was that the chimney (which ventilates the three furnaces for the three-unit building) needed cleaning. Cleaners came. There was no problem with the chimney.

Next up -- called an HVAC company and had all three units cleaned, serviced, etc. and then made sure that the basement area was getting proper ventilation. It turns out that the lower level tenants had closed the metal slats in the basement entry door which is meant to be open, so as to ventilate outside air with the underground area. Their action likely caused soot buildup in the individual furnaces that ended up blocking the furnaces -- causing one or more to expel noxious fumes into their garden and first-floor levels.

By all means -- do not sleep there until the fire department and/or the utility company has taken measurements and the landlord has been able to detect the source of the carbon monoxide.

BTW -- I found it so frustrating to get anyone to "pinpoint" the problem -- since the City, the chimney cleaner and the gas company didn't want to "go on record" as to what was causing the problem. Liability issues relating to possible carbon monoxide poisining caused them to be somewhat evasive. It was actually very frustrating.

Also -- to further note -- I learned that carbon monoxide problems start to "rear their ugly heads" this time of year -- at least here in New England -- due to the fact that heating systems in houses and buildings are just now kicking in, having lay dormant for the summer and this year's warm autumn.
posted by ericb at 7:43 PM on November 14, 2007


And we both get mysterious mild flus - general lethargy, malaise, fogginess - that just linger and linger.

Classic signs of carbon monoxide. The fire department asked about such -- and tested all of us the day they discovered elevated levels in the lowest two-floors of the building.
posted by ericb at 7:45 PM on November 14, 2007


*brownstone*
posted by ericb at 7:47 PM on November 14, 2007


If the carbon monoxide detector is going off, call 911. The firemen will be able to pinpoint the source of the CO.
posted by winston at 8:01 PM on November 14, 2007


Best answer: The detector's supposed to be sensitive to carbon monoxide and explosive gases.

Carbon monoxide detectors are not as reliable as smoke detectors. A few years back Consumer Reports found that a number of models on the market did not provide sufficient protection. If you're in the market for one, you should check out their ratings to find the best one.
posted by Dasein at 8:02 PM on November 14, 2007


Response by poster: Thank you so much for the speedy and serious replies. He's not going to sleep there tonight, and the gas guys are supposed to come as soon as it's light enough for them to look around outside.

There are so many potential sources - we use the fireplace frequently and the woodstove once in a while (the chimneys are inspected and cleaned once a season, though), the heat's been on several times this fall, the other appliances are in constant use. However, this is the first time the detector's gone off - it's pretty scary to hear that they're not necessarily as foolproof as we thought.

Classic signs of carbon monoxide.

How is poisoning tested? I would imagine it'd be an easy blood test - can we go to our doctors and have it done? Thinking about our sketchy location-specific symptoms has me worried about long-term exposure to levels above normal (but low enough not to trigger the detector - which we got less than a year ago anyway), especially since googling suggests that slow poisoning can be very (and perhaps permanently) damaging. The thought of four years of CO exposure is kind of freaky.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:40 PM on November 14, 2007


Best answer: My best friend and I were poisoned by either a faulty water heater or washing machine two floors below us in a four story townhouse. We were talking in the afternoon with the windows open, both felt sleepy and passed out. Somehow one or the other of us woke up, I have no idea how much later, and over an interminable, confusing period of time we shoved each other down the steps, passing out repeatedly, past the source of the gas and out the front door.

To this day, I have no idea exactly what happened to us--we both had selective amnesia about the whole experience, and suddenly recalled aspects of it when talking years later, and pieced some memories together. I just recall being very weak, confused, and how very easy it seemed to close my eyes and curl up on the steps -- but Cathy kept poking me, and me her. If there had not been two of us, I believe the solo person would not have survived.

It sounds like you are taking this seriously, as you should. Please, everyone, don't mess around with this kind of thing.
posted by Scram at 9:07 PM on November 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Let me put it to you this way: your boyfriend's life was saved by the detector.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:41 PM on November 14, 2007


Best answer: IANAD. From here:
CO is eliminated through the lungs. Half-life of CO at room air temperature is 3-4 hours. One hundred percent oxygen reduces the half-life to 30-90 minutes; hyperbaric oxygen at 2.5 atm with 100% oxygen reduces it to 15-23 minutes.
Same site says 16% carboxyhemoglobin is sufficient to cause symptoms, and this one matches your earlier symptoms to 20%-30%. If you got that tested within 2 half-lives (so, 7 hours or so) you'd still be above 5%, which I'd think would be quite detectable. But no one's gonna do that test because your symptom history is pretty much a perfect case. Long-term low-level, on the other hand, is not going to build up like metal poisoning; short of obvious marks of chronic oxygen deprivation, there's not going to be much indication of it.

Further reasons not to go back there: 1. CO binds the oxygen-storage molecule in your heart, cardiac myoglobin, even better than it binds the hemoglobin in your blood. 2. Nonfatal CO poisoning can still cause permanent brain damage.

Enjoy the newfound health of staying away from it. I've had monoxide poisoning once, very mildly, and I wouldn't do it again for five thousand bucks.
posted by eritain at 9:43 PM on November 14, 2007


Check the hell back, peachfuzz.
posted by dhartung at 10:24 PM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if it varies by detector type or not... but the one I have had to be installed on a wall at eye-level rather than way up on the ceiling

Should I be worried that my CO detector is about 7' from the ground?
posted by oaf at 11:06 PM on November 14, 2007


peachfuzz- please let us know what happened once they finish the checks and whatnot. Take care, both of you! AskMe = awesome!
posted by gen at 11:21 PM on November 14, 2007


Tomorrow morning, my carbon monoxide detector gets reinstalled at kids' bed level. I'm glad you are in a position to do something about this instead of something worse happening, and grateful that you asked here so that I could get some of this excellent, excellent advice.
posted by davejay at 3:31 AM on November 15, 2007


peachfuzz, echoing the above--please check back in and let us know what was going on. i think you guys really dodged a bullet.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:27 AM on November 15, 2007


Best answer: When I went to the doctor they said they could do a blood gases test [painful, they said] or I could just get out of the house and see if my symptoms went away. I opted fo rthe latter. Really mostly what you need to do is get out of the house and get whatever's leaking CO2 fixed, everything else is sort of academic.
posted by jessamyn at 4:33 AM on November 15, 2007


Oaf, yes. Every carbon monoxide detector I've ever had has not been at eye level, it's been at ankle-level. Since CO2 is heavier than air, the lower down your detector is, the quicker it will go off with a leak.

By the time that there's enough gas to reach up to 7', you may have already passed out. Reposition that sucker. (Also, if you live in a multi-level apartment or house, definitely have one on every floor.)
posted by iminurmefi at 7:35 AM on November 15, 2007


jessamyn: Really mostly what you need to do is get out of the house and get whatever's leaking CO2 fixed, everything else is sort of academic.

iminurmefi: Since CO2 is heavier than air, the lower down your detector is, the quicker it will go off with a leak.

We are talking about CO (carbon monoxide) not CO2 (carbon dioxide). Carbon dioxide is a natural gas that is exhaled from your lungs. It is the stuff that global warming is about. There is about 0.03% naturally in the atmosphere.

Carbon monoxide is the poisonous stuff. It comes about from incomplete burning. In fact you can burn CO by adding more oxygen and produce CO2. Its harmful effects can be felt in concentrations as low as 100 parts per million.

CO is not heavier than air. It has a molecular weight of 28 which is the same as the nitrogen that makes up 78% of air. CO will mix throughly with the air. If anything, since CO is produced by burning and is hot, it might have a tendency to rise briefly with the hot air before mixing. So the height of the CO detector is not important as long is it is in an open area where the air is free to move (not a closet or remote corner).
posted by JackFlash at 8:38 AM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


oaf & davejay

Don't change its placement solely on account of what I said, as I was only relating my experience of almost incorrectly installing the detector. Which might've been a reason why the OP's boyfriend's detector didn't go off sooner.

Check the manufacturer's instructions, and check if it's expired. If you're shopping for a new one, read the instructions instead of assuming the shiney new detector has to be installed the same way as the old one.
posted by CKmtl at 8:41 AM on November 15, 2007


Reposition that sucker.

I'll have to ask the super. I think it's attached rather firmly to the wall.
posted by oaf at 8:47 AM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ah, well, according to JackFlash I may be wrong--sorry! (Argh, it's like MAS. Mea culpa.)

I had always heard that you wanted it low because of the relative weights of CO vs. air, and the one I bought definitely had instructions to the effect that it needed to be low to the ground, as well as placed on the ground level of the house. However, I'm no chemist so it's possible I'm wrongly interpreting why the directions on my carbon monoxide detector said that.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:34 AM on November 15, 2007


I'll repeat since this is important. We don't want to freak people out unnecessarily. CO is not heavier than air. CO has a molecular weight of 28. Nitrogen which makes up 78% of air has a molecular weight of 28. Oxygen has a molecular weight of 32. Oxygen is heavier than nitrogen and CO, yet you don't find all of the oxygen on the floor and the nitrogen and CO on the ceiling. This is because the molecular weights are so similar. CO will not separate out in the air. It will diffuse in all directions evenly.

The most important thing is that the detector is in a location where you are sure to hear it when sleeping. Height does not matter as long as it is not blocked from the free circulation of air. A hallway near the bedrooms is a good location just as for a smoke detector because it is not behind closed doors.

CO normally builds up slowly over a period of hours. Your detector should go off long before it becomes dangerous. This is different than smoke detectors because lethal fumes from a fire can build up in just a couple of minutes.
posted by JackFlash at 9:47 AM on November 15, 2007


It might be that people are confusing CO with Rn, which is quite heavy.
posted by oaf at 1:31 PM on November 15, 2007


How is poisoning tested? I would imagine it'd be an easy blood test - can we go to our doctors and have it done?

The firemen put that "thing-a-ma-jiggy" on our index fingers. I forgot what else they had us do. They cleared all of us, but said that we could get a blood test, if we were overly concerned. I didn't -- as I live on the upper floors of the building.

More info on the carboxyhemoglobin blood test.
posted by ericb at 1:59 PM on November 15, 2007


When I went to the doctor they said they could do a blood gases test [painful, they said] ...

An arterial blood gas (ABG) test isn't necessary for carbon monoxide testing.

The carboxyhemoglobin blood test (which tests for CO) is straight-forward and is just like any other test in which blood is drawn from a vein.

The ABG involves blood from an artery.
posted by ericb at 2:39 PM on November 15, 2007


ericb: The firemen put that "thing-a-ma-jiggy" on our index fingers.

What you are referring to is a pulse oximeter. It determines the oxygen saturation level of the blood by detecting the absorption of light by the hemoglobin. However, the pulse oximeter is incapable of distinguishing carbon monoxide poisoned hemoglobin from oxygenated hemoglobin. A pulse oximeter may indicate a good 95 to 97% reading even when you are suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

These guys claim to have a new pulse oximeter that can detect CO poisoning.
posted by JackFlash at 5:09 PM on November 15, 2007


These guys claim to have a new pulse oximeter that can detect CO poisoning.

In following your link that Rad-57 Pulse CO-Oximeter [a carbon monoxide pulse oximeter from Masimo] was announced/released in 2005. I suspect that that was the device the Boston Fire Department used with us.
posted by ericb at 9:17 PM on November 15, 2007


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