Like fire, carbon monoxide (CO) is just as deadly. It’s called the silent killer because it’s colorless, odorless and invisible. More than 150 people in the United States die every year from accidental nonfire-related CO poisoning associated with consumer products, including generators. When you breathe in CO, it makes you feel nauseas, dizzy, headachy, and tired like you have the flu. It also makes it difficult to think clearly. CO poisons the body by removing oxygen in the blood stream, slowing suffocating you and eventually causing unconsciousness and even death.

Winter snows can create drifts that block exhaust vents, forcing CO to back-up into your home. High efficiency appliances and those with power-vent blowers by definition waste less heat, so the exhaust air temperature is very low. Often it is too low to melt snow or ice in a plugged exhaust pipe or vent. Keep sidewall and direct vents clear of obstructions, drifting snow and bushes to provide proper ventilation.

Where does CO come from?

Heating equipment is the leading cause of CO incidents. It can also come from hot water heaters, gas stoves, gas dryers, barbecue grills, fireplaces, and from cars, lawn mowers, snow blowers or generators running inside the garage – even with the door open. A large number of CO incidents take place between the months of November and February and between 5 p.m. and 10 a.m. This is the time when most heating equipment is being used at home.

Facts & figures

• The dangers of CO exposure depend on a number of variables, including the victim’s health and activity level. Infants, pregnant women, and people with physical conditions that limit their body’s ability to use oxygen (i.e. emphysema, asthma, heart disease) can be more severely affected by lower concentrations of CO than healthy adults would be.
• A person can be poisoned by a small amount of CO over a longer period of time or by a large amount of CO over a shorter amount of time.
• In 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 80,100 non-fire CO incidents in which carbon monoxide was found, or an average of nine such calls per hour. The number of incidents increased 96 percent from 40,900 incidents reported in 2003. This increase is most likely due to the increased use of CO detectors, which alert people to the presence of CO.

What to do if you suspect CO exposure

• Get out of the house or car and get fresh air.
• Call the fire department or 911 from a neighbor’s house.
• If you have symptoms, seek medical help immediately.

For more information on carbon monoxide safety, please visit the National Fire Protection Association or the United States Fire Administration websites.