Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer.


Carbon monoxide (CO) is often referred to as the silent killer. It is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that is produced as a by-product from the incomplete burning of carbon containing fuels. This includes wood, oil, natural gas, kerosene, coal and gasoline (CO is in exhaust from the car).

If carbon monoxide is not properly vented, it can quickly fill a room and can poison anyone who inhales the gas. When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it attaches to the hemoglobin in the blood stream and displaces the oxygen. The end result is oxygen starvation. Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may be mistaken for flu symptoms. You may experience headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, loss of muscle control, shortness of breath, chest tightness, fluttering of the heart, confusion and slowed reaction time. Some of the most common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning are obstructed chimneys or flues, improperly vented gas or wood burning fireplaces and malfunctioning clothes dryers, water heaters, boilers or furnaces.

Not surprisingly, carbon monoxide (CO) deaths occur more frequently in the winter months, with January having the highest number overall. Deaths from CO poisoning in January account for a three-fold increase in fatality rates over the summer months. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at least two people die each day from CO poisoning in January. More often than not, these deaths involve men and senior citizens. Men are at risk because they often use the fuel-burning tools that generate carbon monoxide and seniors are at risk because they often mistake the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide for other ailments. The use of gas-powered furnaces, as well as, the portable generators and propane stoves used to heat homes and cook food during power outages accounts for this spike. As would be expected, the rates are also elevated in states with the coldest weather, such as, Nebraska, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and North Dakota. Remember these safety tips to prevent CO poisoning:

  • Have your heating system, water heater and other gas or coal-burning appliances inspected and serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Install battery-operated CO detectors on every floor.
  • Don't use a generator, grill or other heating/cooking device inside your home, basement, garage or outside your home near a window.
  • Don't heat your house with a gas oven.
  • Don't leave your car idling in the garage if it is attached to the house.
  • Kerosene and wood heaters should only be used in well-ventilated rooms.

Also, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning increases significantly during hurricane season due to power outages. The Consumer Product Safety Commission urges caution when using generators to provide alternate sources for cooking, lighting, cooling and heating homes. According to the CPSC, there were 64 reported generator-induced carbon monoxide poisoning deaths in 2005.

When portable gas generators, which produce high levels of carbon monoxide, are placed in or around the home, carbon monoxide can build up rapidly and seep into the house. CPSC warns consumers to never use a generator inside the house, garage, or crawl space or shed even if it appears to be well-ventilated.


Created on January 1, 2003

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