Carbon monoxide (CO) can kill. The silent, odorless, and poisonous gas from incomplete combustion is responsible for hundreds of deaths in the United States each year. While consumers continue to learn about CO and take steps to prevent its presence in their homes and buildings, appliance manufacturers are ensuring that both their customers and the end users have safe, operating equipment that lessens the dangers of CO poisoning.
Going hand-in-hand with safe equipment is the need for a safety net. First and foremost, there is no substitute for an annual inspection of fuel-fired appliances throughout the home. Another measure that consumers can take includes installing a CO alarm, which detects the presence of the deadly gas and warns building occupants before CO levels become harmful and can cause injury or death. Recognition of the value of CO alarms continues to grow. Several states and municipalities have mandated the installation of CO alarms in new and existing buildings. Like smoke alarms, CO alarms have become a necessary tool to promote safety.
The Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA) supports the installation and use of CO alarms in all one- and two-family dwelling units in the United States. According to GAMA, the CO alarms should:
While GAMA believes that the most effective way to avoid such incidents that involve gas and oil-fired appliances is through proper installation and maintenance of appliances, the installation of CO alarms can alert occupants if the CO level in a home starts to increase. Along with supporting the installation of CO alarms in all residences, GAMA said it encourages continued research and development to further improve durability and reliability of CO alarms.
Consistent with this policy, GAMA recently submitted an International Code Council (ICC) code change proposal to the International Residential Code, Section R313, Smoke Alarms and Carbon Monoxide (CO) Alarms. The proposal applies to all homes because there are a variety of sources of CO, including some portable sources that may cause elevated CO concentrations in homes.
Increased Awareness"CO awareness has increased dramatically over the past decade," said Amy Hoffmeier, channel manager of Kidde Residential & Commercial. "Most people didn't know what carbon monoxide poison was 10 years ago. Today many people know what carbon monoxide is, what causes it, and how to prevent injury caused by this poison."
Wendy B. Gifford, director of external affairs at Invensys Controls North America, agrees.
"Awareness of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning in the home has grown significantly over the past decade," she said. "The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) made this a priority issue in 1992 and with the introduction of the first carbon monoxide detectors for home use, the commission and manufacturers both worked hard to educate the public. The passage of NFPA 720, the installation standard for household carbon monoxide warning equipment, was a major step forward."
The technical improvements and changes to CO alarms in the past decade have changed dramatically, too. In the initial stages of development, CO alarms were plagued with false alarm signals, alarming at possibly unsafe CO levels, or not alarming at all. Thanks to research and changes in design, manufacturers confidently support new test standards and alarm specifications.
"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a very low (30 ppm) alarm threshold in our detectors," said Mark Sandler, director of sales and marketing for the Quantum Group Inc. "This made for many false alarms. Knowing these problems, the end users normally disregarded these alarms, and sometimes disconnected the detectors."
"The industry and researchers have come to an agreement that 30 ppm is not a health problem unless it persists for many hours. The industry agreed on a 70-ppm threshold at 60-240 minutes, 150 ppm at 10-50 minutes, and 400 ppm at 4-15 minutes. These standards have eliminated most of the false alarms and allowed customers to rely on our detectors, rather then disregard [the] alarms."
RAISING AWARENESSDeaths and injuries from CO poisoning continue to make the news. It is an unfortunate reminder of how to publicize a problem that historically has garnered more reaction than action.
"Sadly, it seems to take a death to really focus people's attention and make them realize that it can happen to their family," said Gifford. "There are now 11 states that have passed legislation or building codes requiring home alarms and most of these were triggered by a tragic death."
The states are Alaska, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts, Utah, and Illinois, which recently passed legislation, but it was not signed by the state's governor as of mid-May.
Manufacturers and industry leaders continue to put pressure on legislators to make CO alarms mandatory in all dwellings.
"We are seeing that the more state CO regulations are passed, the more informed and aware the population is," said Sandler. "We need to encourage our state legislators to pass CO alarm requirements. It seems that even though people are aware of the dangers of CO, they will not act until there is a requirement to do so."
"Kidde and other alarm manufacturers are lobbying for legislation to require CO alarms in all homes. This strategy is extremely important because it reaches all types of consumers," she said.
Besides legislating change, CO alarm manufacturers and equipment manufacturers have taken the initiative to educate and inform the public on the dangers of CO poisoning. Hoffmeier said her company provides resources to various media outlets. When a CO incident or injury occurs, the local media can use resources Kidde has already sent to communicate educational and effective messages to their audiences.
"Three years ago, Kidde introduced a program called Rapid Response," she said. "This program provided resources - such as alarm props, statistics, and pre-written messages - to major media markets across the country. Each time an incident was identified, a team of people from Kidde contacted the local media and reminded them of the kit Kidde had already sent to their office.
"When the program first began, our team found that many members of the media did not fully understand the dangers of carbon monoxide and did not know how to effectively communicate prevention messages. Today, when an incident occurs, the media proactively communicates prevention messages. Kidde no longer has to coach them through the process. We believe our approach to educating the media has been successful."
Hoffmeier believes that media education is not the only mission. The industry must address the other problems CO causes, too.
"We must reach every home, school, hotel, and hospital to protect against the hazards of carbon monoxide," she said. "The media helps reach consumers."
PARTNERING FOR SUCCESSReaching out to consumers is one strong approach. Reaching out to businesses that sell to and service the consumers is the other approach. GAMA members are taking this message right to distributors and dealers.
"At Quantum, we have created a training class that is shown to dealers throughout the U.S.," Sadler said. "These classes are given at wholesale security distributors, for their dealer base. We send out faxes and e-mails telling the local contractors and distributors of these classes and encourage them to send salespeople and technicians to these classes. We are also contacting local contractor associations for permission to attend meetings and give these classes."
HVAC manufacturers are also helping with the effort to educate the home-owner by partnering with CO alarm manufacturers and offering alarms in their product lines.
"This strategy adds convenience for the consumer because the HVAC technician is already visiting the home and can offer an alarm directly to the homeowner," Hoffmeier said. "Many people need to be reminded about the benefits of having a CO alarm before purchasing."
Manufacturers should educate consumers on the proper installation and maintenance of CO alarms, according to Gifford.
"There are still many common questions and misconceptions [about CO alarms]," she said. "One of those I hear most often is: â€˜Where should the alarm be installed?' NFPA 720 recommends it be in the sleeping area, outside the bedrooms. It can be high or low in the room, because carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air and mixes quickly throughout a room."
GAMA will continue to support strong CO alarm standards and education.
Manufacturers of CO Alarms(Members of GAMA's Gas Detection and Analysis Division):
Manufacturer - Product line name - Website
Walter Kidde Portables Equipment, Inc. - Nighthawk - www.kidde.com
Quantum Group Inc. - Costar - www.qginc.com
Invensys Controls Americas - FIREX - www.icca.invensys.com
Publication date: 07/24/2006