Children's Health and Wellness
November 2013

Protect Your Family from These Invisible Killers

They creep into your home, seeping through cracks, drifting through drywall. Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, carbon monoxide (CO) and radon are two toxic gases that can seriously harm you — without your knowing it. Fortunately, you can protect yourself and your family from these invisible killers.

CO poisoning

CO is produced when fuel is burned. Potential sources in your home: a faulty furnace, a malfunctioning stove, an improperly vented fireplace. Generators and gas-powered equipment can also emit CO. Using them indoors can result in dangerous amounts of the gas in your home.

At low levels, CO may cause fatigue. Higher concentrations can spawn more serious symptoms, including headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, and coordination problems. Inhaling too much CO can even lead to death. One study estimated that an average of 439 people die every year from CO poisoning. Thousands more are hospitalized.

A CO detector can alert you to rising amounts of this gas before it becomes lethal. Experts recommend installing one on each level of your home outside sleeping areas. You should consider a detector even if you live in a multifamily dwelling without fuel-burning appliances. A recent study documented how CO can move through drywall, making you vulnerable to the gas if it emanates from your neighbors' homes.

The risk of radon

As the element uranium naturally breaks down, it turns into radon. This gas then seeps up through the soil into the air you breathe. Radon can infiltrate your house through cracks or holes in the foundation. It may also enter through your water supply, particularly if you have a well or another groundwater source.

When trapped inside your home, accumulating radon may cause lung cancer. A recent review of 22 studies on the gas found that people with the most exposure were 29% more likely to develop the disease. Smoking plus radon exposure elevates your risk for lung cancer even more.

A simple test can detect radon in your home. You can buy a test kit at your local hardware store. Place it in your basement or the lowest lived-in level of your home for 2 or more days. If the test shows radon levels of 4 or more picocuries per liter of air, experts recommend fixing your home to reduce exposure.

 

Other hazardous materials may be hiding in your home. Find out more here. 

 

More Tips for Preventing CO Poisoning

A detector can alert you to CO already in the air. But to help prevent CO problems before they start, pay attention to and properly maintain fuel-burning appliances and devices. Follow these safety tips from the Consumer Product Safety Commission:

  • Don’t run a car engine or other fuel burner in a garage, even if the doors are open.

  • Regularly inspect your vehicle for exhaust leaks.

  • Before cold weather begins, check furnaces, water heaters, wood stoves, portable heaters, and your chimney for leaks and cracks.

  • Never use a barbecue grill in a garage or other enclosed areas.

  • When camping, use battery-powered heaters or flashlights in tents, trailers, and motor homes. Never use unvented fuel-burning appliances in enclosed areas, such as a vehicle, camper, trailer, home, or tent.

 

Online resources

EPA

CDC

Print Source: Diffusion of Carbon Monoxide Through Gypsum Wallboard. N. Hampson, T. Courtney, and J. Holm. JAMA. 2013;310(7):745-46.
Print Source: National Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Surveillance Framework and Recent Estimates. S. Iqbal, et al. Public Health Reports. 2012;127(5):486-96.
Print Source: Residential Radon and Lung Cancer Risk: An Updated Meta-Analysis of Case-Control Studies. Z-L. Zhang, et al. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2012;13(6):2459-65.
Online Source: Radon, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2012http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tfacts145.pdf
Online Source: Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning Prevention, CDC, 2013http://www.cdc.gov/Features/COpoisoning
Online Source: The Invisible Killer, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commissionhttp://www.cpsc.gov//PageFiles/121843/464.pdf
Online Source: An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), Carbon Monoxide (CO), EPA, 2013http://www.epa.gov/iaq/co.html
Online Source: A Citizen’s Guide to Radon: The Guide to Protecting Yourself and Your Family from Radon, EPA, 2012http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/citguide.html
Author: Semko, Laura
Online Editor: Sinovic, Dianna
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 10/10/2013
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.