Why You Should Worry About Carbon Monoxide

person opening door of a gas stove
Preheating isn't always necessary. brizmaker/Shutterstock

Carbon monoxide, an odorless and colorless gas, is a byproduct of combustion — an oil-fired furnace, a gasoline generator. When levels of carbon monoxide emissions build up in an enclosed space, the gas can cause sudden illness and death.

Carbon monoxide poisoning causes about 500 accidental deaths a year, according to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest number of deaths are recorded in January — the depth of winter when many people improperly heat their home. More than 20,000 carbon monoxide poisoning victims visit the emergency room each year and more than 4,000 are hospitalized, according to the CDC. Some safety advocates claim the totals are likely much higher because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning mimic a wide range of health problems.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. High levels of carbon monoxide are lethal. Many victims die in their sleep without experiencing symptoms.

Winter weather presents a higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning because that's when people crank up the furnace to stay warm. A gas, oil or coal burning furnace that isn’t operating efficiently, or isn’t properly vented, can leak carbon monoxide into the home. People who burn charcoal or turn up the burners of a gas stove to stay warm are also at risk.

When any type of storm knocks out the electricity, people who use portable generators may be pumping carbon monoxide into the house.

Carbon monoxide safety

The CDC offers these tips to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Install a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detector and replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. If the detector sounds leave your home immediately and call 911.
  • Get immediate medical help if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseous.
  • Don't use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement or garage or near a window.
  • Don't run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open.
  • Don't burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't vented.
  • Don't heat your house with a gas oven.
Don’t use a generator, pressure washer or any gasoline-powered engine less than 20 feet from any window, door or