Carbon monoxide—the silent cold weather killer

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Public information and safety tips

Fairfax, Va.—Each year, nearly 5,000 people in the United States are treated in hospital emergency rooms for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. This number is, however, believed to be an underestimate of those poisoned because many people exhibiting the symptoms of CO poisoning mistake these symptoms for the flu or are misdiagnosed.

Why is CO the silent cold weather killer?

CO poisoning can kill without warning, as your family sleeps. CO gas has no warning properties—you can’t smell it, see it or taste it—even at harmful or life-threatening levels. And, since so many deaths occur as the result of defective or poorly-operated home heating devices, CO has been termed the “silent cold weather killer.”

CO is a colorless, odorless, toxic gas. It is produced by the incomplete combustion of solid, liquid and gaseous fuels. Appliances fueled with gas, oil, kerosene or wood may produce CO. If such appliances are not installed, maintained and used properly, CO may accumulate to dangerous and even fatal levels in cars, homes, or poorly-ventilated areas like basements.

Where does CO come from?

CO is produced when fuels are burned; therefore, any fuel-burning appliance in your home is a potential CO source. Electrical heaters and electric water heaters, toasters, etc., do not produce CO under any circumstances. Under normal circumstances, CO should not be detectable in the typical home or workplace.

When fuel-fired appliances are kept in good working condition, they produce very little CO. But improperly operated or improperly vented appliances can produce elevated—or even fatal—CO concentrations in your home. Likewise, using kerosene heaters or charcoal grills indoors, or running a car in a closed garage, can cause levels of CO high enough to result in CO poisoning or even death.

Common sources of CO include the following wood- or gas-fueled appliances:

Room heaters


Charcoal grills

Cooking ranges

Water heaters

Automobiles run in closed garages


Portable generators

Wood-burning stoves

Who is at risk of CO poisoning?

Any person or animal in spaces shared with a device capable of generating CO should be considered at risk of CO poisoning. CO exposures especially affect unborn babies, infants and people with anemia or a history of heart disease. Breathing low levels of the chemical can cause fatigue and increase chest pain in people with chronic heart disease.

Although not always experienced, the initial symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu, but without the fever. They include:





Irregular breathing

It is critical to note that death from CO poisoning can occur with some or all of these symptoms never being experienced, in which case the overexposed victim simply falls asleep and never regains consciousness.

How can CO poisoning be prevented?

Dangerous levels of CO can be prevented by proper appliance maintenance, installation, and use. Timely inspections of potentially CO-producing equipment, and the use of CO toxic level concentration alarms, are also key to avoiding a CO fatality.

You can learn more about protecting yourself from CO poisoning by visiting A consultants listing of industrial hygienists that includes CO specialists also is available on the site.

Founded in 1939, the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) is the premier association of occupational and environmental health and safety professionals. AIHA’s 11,600 members play a crucial role on the front line of worker health and safety every day. Members represent a cross-section of industry, private business, labor, government and academia. For more information, go to

From the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue

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