Carbon monoxide is called the silent killer because it is lighter than air and can’t be seen, smelled or tasted. It’s formed when wood or a fossil fuel such as kerosene, natural gas, gasoline or coal is burned. If carbon monoxide is not vented properly, it can fill a room quickly and may result in tragedy. Although anyone can be poisoned by inhaling carbon monoxide, the unborn, young children, persons with respiratory illness, heart disease or anemia, as well as the elderly are at greater risk.
Carbon monoxide poisons the body’s cells and deprives them of oxygen. Mild exposure to carbon monoxide may cause flu-like symptoms including a slight headache, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. More significant exposure may produce an intense throbbing headache, drowsiness, confusion and heart irregularities. An extreme exposure to carbon monoxide may cause convulsions, unconsciousness, heart failure, brain damage or death. The medical treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning depends on the amount of carbon monoxide in the blood and the patient’s symptoms.
Appliances & Equipment That Produce Carbon Monoxide
- Gas and oil furnaces, boilers and gas water heaters
- Gas, oil and kerosene space heaters
- Gas clothes dryers
- Gas and wood kitchen ranges, ovens and fireplaces
- Gasoline-powered lawn mowers, snow blowers, chainsaws and weed eaters
- Cars, trucks, motorcycles and mopeds
- Charcoal grills and gas lanterns
Gas water heaters, dryers and oil burners must have flues that vent the carbon monoxide outside. Vent failure can be caused by venting systems or chimneys that were installed incorrectly; a deteriorating or obstructed chimney; chimneys that are too short; and appliances that are not equipped with venting systems.
Common Causes of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
- An obstructed chimney or flue
- A malfunctioning gas clothes dryer
- A wood-burning fireplace or gas log burner that is not vented properly
- Barbecue grills used indoors
- Pool and spa heaters that are not vented properly
- Automobile running in an open or closed garage
Minimizing Your Risk
The key to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning is good preventive maintenance. All fuel-burning appliances, furnaces, and fireplaces should be checked yearly. Every home should have at least one carbon monoxide detector near the bedrooms to warn you before the carbon monoxide concentration reaches dangerous levels.
Both electric and battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors are available. A portable, battery-operated detector is good for use in homes during electrical outages, while camping or while traveling. Do not use detectors that warn potential victims solely through a color change. These sensors do not sound alarms, so they can’t warn people who are sleeping. If your carbon monoxide alarm sounds, do not treat it as a false alarm. False alarms are rare.
If your alarm sounds:
- Account for all residents and pets, and move everyone to fresh air.
- If anyone is ill, contact emergency medical services immediately.
Whenever possible, identify and eliminate the source of carbon monoxide. Contact your local poison center at 800-222-1222 immediately from a neighbor's home or using a phone that is away from the carbon monoxide contamination. The poison center will advise you regarding the need for medical care and anyone else you may need to contact for additional support.
The best way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is to have your heating system inspected yearly by a qualified heating contractor. The vent system and chimneys also should be inspected, repaired and replaced as needed.
If you suspect a poisoning emergency, call your poison center immediately at 800-222-1222.