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Carbon Monoxide: An Invisible Threat

by Leslie Pepper

Carbon monoxide is one of the leading causes of poison-related death in the United States, killing more than 400 people each year and sending more than 20,000 to the emergency room, according to the CDC. It’s the greatest risk during the fall and winter months, when people are most likely to use appliances that emit the gas (such as furnaces) and spend more time in enclosed spaces, where carbon monoxide can accumulate to dangerous levels. Some simple precautions can help you prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and potentially save your life or that of a loved one. Here’s what you need to know.

What is carbon monoxide?

A colorless, odorless gas, carbon monoxide is a byproduct of combustion, from burning fuel such as oil, gas, propane, wood, and charcoal. Cars, trucks, gas or charcoal grills, gas-powered tools, gas ranges, gas-powered generators, heating systems, fireplaces, and wood-burning stoves all produce carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide becomes dangerous when it builds up in enclosed spaces, such as a house, garage, car, boat, or RV, as a result of inadequate ventilation. For example, heating systems are designed to send fumes outside. But if the systems are not maintained or checked regularly, blockages may occur, sending the fumes back into the building or home. The gas can also accumulate if you run an engine or burn wood or charcoal in an enclosed space, such as a garage.

The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is heightened in the fall and winter, as we begin to fire up our furnaces and spend more time indoors, as well as after natural disasters, when power outages make the use of generators and other gas-powered devices more likely than usual.

How does carbon monoxide poisoning occur?

As you breathe in carbon monoxide, it starts to replace oxygen in red blood cells. This can trigger symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, and headaches. The signs can be subtle and mimic those of other illnesses such as the flu. If you are sleeping or have been drinking alcohol heavily, you could die of carbon monoxide poisoning without ever noticing symptoms.

How to Buy a Carbon Monoxide Detector

These potentially life-saving devices usually cost less than $50 each and are relatively easy to install or have installed.

How can carbon monoxide poisoning be prevented?

  • Install a carbon monoxide detector. According to the CDC, when poisoning occurs, homes without detectors are likely to have carbon monoxide levels nearly five times higher than homes with them by the time help arrives. For tips on buying a detector, see the box above.
  • Make sure appliances are installed and vented properly. The CDC recommends having your heating system, water heater, and any gas, oil, or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician once a year.
  • Never use a gas oven or range to heat your home.
  • Use generators, charcoal grills, camp stoves and other gas or charcoal-burning devices outside only, at least 20 feet from windows, doors and vents.
  • Never run your car’s motor when it is in the garage, even with the garage door open. The odorless fumes can quickly fill the garage and seep into the attached house. And when warming up the car outdoors, make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow.

If you suspect you’re experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning: Get fresh air into your lungs immediately by opening windows or going outdoors. Then call for emergency medical help, because carbon monoxide poisoning must be treated by a physician. If your carbon monoxide detector goes off, get outside and call 911 immediately.

Also see 20 Indoor Air Pollution Tips.