You can't see it or smell it, but carbon monoxide is a toxic gas that kills nearly 450 Americans each year and sends another 20,000 to the emergency room, says a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study. Men account for 79 percent of the fatal poisonings because they tend to use more fuel-burning tools and appliances than women and children, who are involved in the highest number of nonlethal cases.

These findings highlight the need for more public awareness and education about carbon monoxide's dangers, say the study authors, especially when it comes to preparing for disasters, shortly after which most poisonings occur. Using generators indoors caused 84 percent of the disaster-related fatalities.

The CDC warns that portable generators be kept at least 20 feet away from residences. And don't wait until you hear storm warnings to take precautions. Follow these tips to ensure everyday safety:

  • Have any coal-burning, oil or gas appliances or heating systems serviced every year
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector and change its batteries twice a year
  • Never use a gas oven to heat your home
  • Don't leave your car motor on in a garage, even with the garage door open
  • Don't use appliances or devices that burn gasoline or charcoal inside your home

Source: American Journal of Public Health, vol. 102, p. 1957; Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 28 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 12 Feb 2015