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Carbon monoxide calls more frequent in the winter

Required by law, CO detectors help keep families safe

Sycamore Assistant Fire Chief Art Zern demonstrates how the four-gas meter and the combustible gas detector monitors the air around a water heater Tuesday. Common areas for carbon monoxide leaks are around water heaters, furnaces and stoves.
Sycamore Assistant Fire Chief Art Zern demonstrates how the four-gas meter and the combustible gas detector monitors the air around a water heater Tuesday. Common areas for carbon monoxide leaks are around water heaters, furnaces and stoves.

Many residential carbon monoxide problems are because of malfunctioning equipment, but Sycamore Fire Chief Pete Polarek said his department is receiving more calls than usual this winter.

Sycamore firefighters responded to 22 carbon monoxide incidents from Dec. 1 to Jan. 31, including four with elevated carbon monoxide levels and three others where residents had troubling symptoms such as a severe headache. The rest were blamed on malfunctioning detectors. At least one call was serious, however, sending four residents of a Sycamore home to Kishwaukee Hospital for treatment for high levels of carbon monoxide in December.

“They didn’t have a detector at
the time; they have one now,” Polarek said.

As the frigid winter continues, Polarek and other fire officials suggest residents maintain carbon monoxide detectors in homes heated with natural gas or propane and review simple safety tips, such as avoiding warming up automobiles inside garages.

DeKalb Fire Chief Eric Hicks said his department has answered 64 carbon monoxide-related calls in the past four months; 23 of those showed increased levels of the gas.

“That number is pretty much the same as last year,” Hicks said.

He attributes many of the calls to the long stretch of frigid weather in the area.

“We’ve had a hard winter, and houses are so closed up,” Hicks said. “I remember in the days of single-pane windows when you could see curtains move on really windy days.”

As homes have become more energy efficient, Hicks said malfunctioning fireplaces or appliances – furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, ovens, any gas appliance – are more obvious.

Hicks also cautioned against running vehicles to warm them up inside the garage.

“Even with the garage door open, the exhaust can get into the house and cause elevated CO levels in the house, the garage and inside the car,” Hicks said.

When called for an alarm, firefighters can pinpoint which appliance is malfunctioning, Hicks said.

If elevated carbon monoxide levels are discovered, Polarek said his department can help with finding a repair person and perhaps even temporary relocation, if necessary.

Many of the false alarms are because of low batteries or equipment that has reached the end of its shelf life.

“These detectors, smoke detectors, too, have a limited lifespan,” Polarek said.

Illinois law requires residents using fossil fuels, such as natural gas or propane, to install carbon monoxide detectors within 15 feet of all rooms used for sleeping.

“A lot of people are either not educated on the law, or they haven’t taken the time or money to purchase the equipment,” Polarek said.

The state fire marshal’s office also is stepping up its efforts to raise awareness about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Don’t let that silent killer take the lives of your lived ones,” said state Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis. “CO alarms save lives.”

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas. Common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing, loss of balance, vision problems and dizziness. Victims sometimes believe they have contracted the flu. Symptoms of high levels of carbon monoxide can include disorientation, memory problems, loss of consciousness and death.

Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

• Have home heating systems, including chimneys and vents, inspected and serviced annually by a trained service technician.

• Never use portable generators inside homes or garages, even if doors and windows are open.

• Keep household appliances in good working order.

• Do not use gas ovens or ranges for heating.

• Keep air vents open and unobstructed. Make sure all rooms are well ventilated.

• Never bring a charcoal grill in the house or garage for heating or cooking.

• Open the fireplace damper before lighting a fire and keep it open until ashes are cool.

• Install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms or alarms with a battery backup on each level of the home.

• If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, get outside to fresh air immediately and call 911.

• For more information, visit

Source: Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal

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