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Odorless and deadly: The dangers of carbon monoxide

This silent, but deadly gas can be avoided in your home by taking certain precautions.


Each winter, as furnaces light and generators and space heaters spring to life, the Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia gets calls about a potentially deadly gas that you can't see, smell, or taste—carbon monoxide, also known as the "silent killer". CO poisoning unrelated to fire accidents results in more than 400 unintentional deaths of Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CO poisoning may result in tragedies where "whole families are poisoned, some fatally," said Fred Henretig, MD, a physician and toxicologist at the Poison Control Center.

CO is produced from gas or wood burning appliances including space heaters, furnaces, fireplaces, and generators. As Henretig and his colleagues reported in the American Journal of Public Health earlier this year, generator-associated CO poisoning increases after major storms that result in power outages. CO poisoning makes it harder for red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of the body.

This leads to symptoms which might mimic colds and the flu, including headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, CO poisoning can lead to fainting, coma, seizures, and death because of inadequate oxygen delivery. The CO molecule is composed of only two common elements, but poisoning from CO can be dangerous to a whole household with exposures as short as 20 to 30 minutes. This deadly gas can be avoided if you take certain precautions:

You shouldn't be alarmed if you have properly working alarms

Install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector on each floor of your home and in your garage. If you already have one, test to make sure that the alarms are working. The City of Philadelphia recommends checking your carbon monoxide detectors every six months. The CDC suggests routine checking when changing the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Some manufacturers have even recommended testing the alarms every week, so it's important to check the manual as well.

Keep home heating systems in check

A qualified service technician can check your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances. Obstructed ventilation systems increase the risk of CO accumulation. Common signs of ventilation problems include finding rust or flaking paint on the top of the heater, but self-inspections do not replace regular maintenance by a licensed professional.

Properly use appliances

  1. Never use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device indoors, in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces, or nearby doors, windows or vents. This includes garages, crawl spaces, and basements.

  2. Never use a gas range or oven for heating because this can cause a buildup of CO.

  3. Never run a vehicle inside a garage attached to your house as car exhaust contains CO. Be especially careful with keyless vehicles and always ensure that the engine is turned off when parked inside your garage.

What should you do if you suspect carbon monoxide in your home?

  1. Leave the building for fresh air. Windows can be quickly opened for ventilation but it is important to get to safety. Avoid staying inside until proper inspection by a licensed professional.

  2. Call the fire department by calling 911; they can test for carbon monoxide and assess the safety of the building.

  3. Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 for help with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning..

  4. Call your gas company, oil company or local health authority to help identify and remove sources of carbon monoxide contamination.

The Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia offers more information about carbon monoxide poisoning here.

Kachel Mallari, a PharmD Candidate at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, wrote this in conjunction with the Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.