Updated: Apr 26
Carbon monoxide is the “silent killer”, due to its inability to be detected by human senses.
Carbon monoxide detection is a great tool in preventing deaths from Carbon Monoxide poisoning. However, not all buildings have Carbon Monoxide detectors installed. Regulations surrounding carbon monoxide detection are not consistent across the country, which leads to gaps in where detectors are installed. Due to this, the burden of safety from carbon monoxide lies upon the individual when regulations and standards fail.
Safety within the Home
Electronic detection of carbon monoxide is a very important element in protection against deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide can be emitted by any fuel-powered appliance, such as furnaces, gas stoves and ovens, fireplaces, and automobiles. While these sources exist in many homes, the presence of carbon monoxide alarms in households is not deep-rooted within the US. This can be seen by comparing the prevalence of Carbon Monoxide detectors to a similar device, the smoke alarm.
Standards around smoke alarms in the home were first introduced in 1976 by the Life Safety Code of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) . This same organization did not release carbon monoxide detection standards until 1998 with NFPA 720 . In 1985, an estimated 75% of homes nationwide had fire alarms installed, and, by 1995, that number had risen to 96% [1,3]. As for carbon monoxide detectors, in 2021, 93 million households had a carbon monoxide detector, making up 72.4% of total households . After over 30 years of standards for carbon monoxide detectors in households, their prevalence has still not reached the level that smoke alarms attained in only 10 years. This difference may be due to how quickly and thoroughly states implemented their own regulations surrounding these devices.
Today, a few states still do not require carbon monoxide detectors in residences. Those that do generally base their regulations on one of these codes: NFPA 1, NFPA 101, and the International Fire Code (IFC) . A breakdown of state carbon monoxide regulations can be seen here . If you live somewhere where carbon monoxide detectors are not required, it is recommended to get a Carbon Monoxide detection device as a measure of protection against carbon monoxide. There are several types of carbon monoxide detection devices available to fit the needs of everyone, including battery-operated portable Carbon Monoxide detectors, wall plug-in Carbon Monoxide detectors, and hard-wired carbon monoxide alarms.
Carbon monoxide detectors should be replaced at least every 10 years due to the lifetime of the batteries used within the devices. This means that while a carbon monoxide detector might be present in a household, it might not be properly functioning if its lifetime has been exceeded. A study from 2011 tested the performance of Carbon Monoxide detectors that were being actively used by people in the Athens, Ohio community. Their findings were that 40% of the Carbon Monoxide devices had significant failures and were ineffective at any protection from carbon monoxide . This shows that it is a possibility that even if there are Carbon Monoxide detectors within a home, they might not be providing protection. If you live somewhere already fitted with carbon monoxide detectors, ensure that they are functioning properly.
Safety Outside the Home
Many of the same Carbon Monoxide sources seen in the home are used in public spaces as well. However, regulatory protections from carbon monoxide outside of the home are fewer than those within the home. Regulations surrounding carbon monoxide exposure and detection vary in their scope and often do not exist for certain occupancy types.
Protection in the workplace falls to OSHA standards. These standards dictate that carbon monoxide levels cannot exceed an average higher than 50 ppm over an 8-hour period . While the administration regulates what carbon monoxide concentrations are acceptable, there is no specific method required for carbon monoxide detection in workplaces . Realistically, without proper detection, levels of carbon monoxide exceeding the limits could go unnoticed in many situations.
Environmental/outdoor Carbon Monoxide concentrations are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA standard is that carbon monoxide should not exceed an average concentration of 35 ppm in a 1-hour period or 9 ppm in an 8-hour period more than once per year . This 8-hour limit is much lower than what OSHA permits; the OSHA level is over 10 times greater, a concerning disparity.
In other spaces, there are further inconsistencies in carbon monoxide regulations. As of 2021, the number of states with laws for Carbon Monoxide alarms in various locations were: 45 states for daycares, 45 states for hotels/dormitories, 36 states for schools, and only 4 for assembly occupancies , which include places such as restaurants and churches.
The Jenkins Foundation, with testimony from NCOAA, has supported a proposal for the 2024 International Fire Code that would require all new and existing commercial buildings with a carbon monoxide source to have Carbon Monoxide detection . If this proposal is approved, it would fill a large gap in carbon monoxide safety. However, even with approval, it would still be up to individual states to adopt this measure into their own regulations.
Since many buildings are not currently required to have carbon monoxide detectors, you may want to invest in your own portable carbon monoxide detector. These are a great method of protection from Carbon Monoxide poisoning outside the home, and are important to have in places you will spend a lot of time, especially in hotels or anywhere you will be sleeping. People who are more vulnerable to carbon monoxide, including those who are elderly, immuno-compromised, pregnant, or children , have an even greater need for low-level detection of carbon monoxide everywhere they go.
The inconsistencies in regulations of carbon monoxide detection in public spaces and large differences in carbon monoxide exposure standards create major gaps in Carbon Monoxide safety. There is work to be done before standards and regulations provide holistic protection from carbon monoxide exposure. In the meantime, it is up to individuals to ensure their own safety from carbon monoxide.
NCOAA Recommendations on Carbon Monoxide Safety
Install a Carbon Monoxide alarm in the hallway near each sleeping area, on every level, and in the garage
Carry a carbon monoxide detector that goes to 0 ppm if you’re part of a vulnerable population
Replace carbon monoxide alarms approximately every 10 years (or per manufacturer recommendations)
Don’t rely exclusively on carbon monoxide alarms, as they may not detect slow, lingering leaks under 30 ppm
Use discount code ‘NCOAA’ at checkout for Sensorcon INS2-CO-01
Turn your car off in the garage, never leave the engine running
Have your appliances checked during inspection and then again every year (Find an NCI certified professional at https://www.myhomecomfort.org/find-a-contractor/)
Do not use outdoor appliances inside or near open windows (grill, generator, gas lantern)
Clear snow near your car’s exhaust in the snowy winter