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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a dangerous gas that is produced in many homes. It is odorless, colorless and produced by appliances, such as heaters, that are powered by natural gas, kerosene, oil and burning wood or charcoal.  Every year, approximately 50,000 people require emergency room treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning. Hundreds die accidentally from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by appliances that have malfunctioned or were not used properly.
When humans or animals inhale carbon monoxide, it attaches to hemoglobin in red blood cells. Hemoglobin’s job is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. When carbon monoxide attaches instead of oxygen, the body is slowly deprived of oxygen, which can lead to illness and death.

Poisoning depending on the carbon monoxide level being inhaled. Breathing in low levels of the gas causes flu-like symptoms. People experience dizziness, nausea, headache, weakness, confusion and disorientation. If the symptoms last more than a few days, or get better when the sufferer leaves the building, carbon monoxide poisoning may be the culprit.
Breathing higher levels of carbon monoxide can be deadly. Not only do sufferers experience flu-like symptoms, they may feel sleepy, anxious or depressed. Some people notice impaired vision and coordination. At very high levels, people lose consciousness. High-level exposure can cause permanent physical and mental conditions. Approximately 450 people a year die from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is virtually 100 percent preventable in the home. The key is to make sure stoves and other appliances that burn fuel have proper ventilation and are working properly. That includes having a professional inspect and repair them every year.  Appliances should be installed properly and in adherence to building code. Chimneys should be cleaned annually.  Homeowners should make sure that the outside air intake for the furnace is free from leaves and other debris that could block the ventilation.
Gas furnaces, central heating systems, ovens, hot water heaters and clothes dryers should be properly maintained. Homeowners need to be careful using fireplaces, wood stoves, kerosene heaters and oil furnaces. Gas ovens should never be used to heat a home. Other items that can produce high levels of carbon monoxide include charcoal grills, gas powered power tools and lawn mowers and vehicle exhaust fumes. Vehicles, lawn mowers or any other gas-powered tool should never be operated in a closed garage or basement. Consumers should keep up to date on product recalls involving their appliances.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can also occur while people enjoy recreational activities. Campers should never burn portable camp stoves or kerosene lamps in a camper, recreational vehicle or a cabin. They should also avoid burning any charcoal fire or lantern indoors.

Homes, as well as cabins and recreational vehicles with an electrical source, should be equipped with a Carbon Monoxide Detector. When choosing a detector to buy, consumers should make sure it has a long-term warranty and can be reset and self-tested. It should also meet standards set by Underwriters Laboratories.  Detector placement is important. It should be plugged in near sleeping areas.
When homeowners hear an alarm go off, they should first check the smoke detector, then the carbon monoxide detector. Next, they should see if anyone in the home is experiencing poisoning symptoms. Anyone with symptoms should be taken to the hospital.  If no one is ill, homeowners should open doors and windows and turn off all appliances that could be emitting carbon monoxide.  No appliance should be used until all ventilation areas are checked for blockages and a technician comes to inspect them.
With precautions followed with appliances, carbon monoxide poisoning can be avoided. With proper care and a carbon monoxide detector, every home can be safe.

Additional Information

  • The  Center for Disease Control and Prevent provide a downloadable fact sheet with helpful diagrams.It is available in a number of languages.
  • Comprehensive information is available from the Mayo Clinic.
  •  Pets may be affected first. The Environmental Protection Agency mentions pet symptoms, pointing out that if a person has flu symptoms and their pet is also ill, carbon monoxide may be the culprit.
  • The  Environmental Protection Agency provides detailed information as well as links on subjects that include the health aspects as well as information about detectors.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning is more common after a natural disaster causes power outage . The CDC provides information about what to do in these situations.
  • If a consumer purchases a product that emits an unsafe level of carbon monoxide, they may report it.