Dangers of Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Wood Stove Image

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless, toxic gas produced by the incomplete burning of fuels like natural gas, oil, propane, kerosene, coal, wood, charcoal, and others. In an enclosed or partially enclosed environment—such as a home, breathing CO can be deadly for people and pets.

Malfunctioning appliances, running engines and power equipment that isn't properly ventilated can result in dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in the air. Products that can emit CO include the following:

  • Cars and other vehicles
  • Fireplaces
  • Furnaces
  • Generators
  • Grills (gas and charcoal)
  • Lawn mowers
  • Power washers
  • Snow blowers
  • Space heaters
  • Stoves (ovens, ranges, wood or pellet stoves)
  • Water heaters

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), thousands of people are treated for accidental CO exposure and nearly 500 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning each year in the United States. Properly functioning battery-operated or battery-backup carbon monoxide detectors can prevent accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Because CO cannot be smelled, tasted or seen, people often are unaware if they are accidentally exposed to the toxic gas—that is why it's so important to have functioning carbon monoxide detectors in your home, motor home, camper or cabins.

When there are high levels of carbon monoxide in the air you breathe, red blood cells in your body absorb the CO faster than they absorb oxygen, causing carbon monoxide poisoning—tissue damage that can ultimately lead to death.

Early signs of exposure to carbon monoxide are similar to flu-like symptoms (without fever) and are sometimes mistaken for illness. Low or moderate CO exposure can cause the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness

Young children, older adults, people with chronic health conditions, and people who are asleep or intoxicated are at increased risk for severe CO poisoning and death from carbon monoxide exposure. Progressive symptoms of exposure to carbon monoxide include:

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Unconsciousness

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention and CO Safety Tips

The most important step you can take to protect your family from CO poisoning is to install battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detectors near all sleeping areas and/or on every level of your home. Follow instructions for placement and installation of CO detectors carefully and replace batteries regularly (twice a year).

Here are some other ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Make sure all appliances and heating systems meet recommended guidelines, are installed and serviced by a licensed professional, and are vented properly.
  • Have your home heating system, water heater, fireplace, chimney and other fuel burning appliances checked by a qualified technician every year.
  • Call a qualified technician if you notice any unusual odors from appliances. Malfunctions and defects may indicate a problem that can cause CO emission.
  • Do not use heating or cooking devices (gas or charcoal grills, chemical heaters, camp stoves, kerosene lanterns, etc.) that are designed for use outdoors inside your home, garage, enclosed porch, camper, cabin or tent.
  • Never heat your home with a gas stove or oven designed to cook food.
  • Use generators with extreme care. Be sure portable generators are installed and vented properly and never use them inside your home, basement or garage, or near a door, window or vent.
  • Have a reliable mechanic check your vehicle's exhaust system at least once every year—and whenever you suspect a problem.
  • Never run your vehicle or gas-powered lawn mower, snow blower or pressure washer inside an attached garage or in your basement. Always open the garage door when an engine is running inside.
  • If your vehicle is parked outside, check that the tailpipe is free from obstruction (packed snow, heavy brush) before starting the engine. If your vehicle has a tailgate, be sure to open vents or windows when the tailgate is open and the engine is running.

If You Suspect Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

If you or a member of your household is experiencing signs of CO poisoning or your CO detector is going off, get outside to fresh air immediately and call 9-1-1 or your local fire department from your cell phone or a neighbor's home. Do not try to find the source of the problem on your own and do not go back inside the home until emergency personnel have given the okay to do so. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.

Once the source of the carbon monoxide has been identified, don't operate the heating system or appliance until it has been replaced or properly serviced by a qualified technician.

Sources: United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 14 Feb 2013

Last Modified: 29 Sep 2014