Extension News

Ways You Can Stop the Silent Killer


MARION, Iowa --- You’ve heard about carbon monoxide poisoning in the news. An Aspen family of four was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning over the Thanksgiving weekend. An 84-year-old woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning after a fire in her Pittsburgh home. What you don’t hear about are the close calls, all the children and adults rushed to emergency rooms because of carbon monoxide poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that carbon monoxide poisoning claims nearly 500 lives and causes more than 15,000 visits to hospital emergency departments annually.

"People often don't realize how deadly carbon monoxide is or that carbon monoxide poisoning can happen to them," said Tom Greiner, Iowa State University Extension housing engineer. "Carbon monoxide is produced whenever fuel does not burn completely, as in an improperly adjusted gas burner, a wood fire, burning charcoal or from a gasoline engine."

You can keep carbon monoxide from putting your family in the emergency room or the news. Guard your family by installing carbon monoxide detectors. 

"Carbon monoxide alarms and detectors save lives; every home should have several," Greiner said. "However, carbon monoxide alarms are not a substitute for good sense and proper maintenance of heating appliances. Never operate gasoline-powered electric generator inside the home and never use an unvented charcoal grill indoors."

Greiner recommends that all sleeping areas have a carbon monoxide alarm. For an even greater layer of protection, install an alarm on each level of the home.

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is often referred to as the silent killer because you can’t smell, taste or see it. CO is released by the burning of any combustible fuel. It’s found in heating systems that are poorly functioning, like an improperly adjusted or defective furnace. Carbon monoxide also is released to the indoors by poorly vented or unvented fuel-burning devices like kerosene heaters, charcoal grills, camp stoves and gas-powered electric generators. House fires are a common, and extremely dangerous, source of carbon monoxide.

When breathed in, carbon monoxide replaces the oxygen that cells need to function. When CO is present in the air, it rapidly accumulates in the blood, causing symptoms similar to the flu, such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizzy spells, confusion and irritability. As levels increase, vomiting, loss of consciousness, and eventually brain damage or death can result.

"Some sources, such as a wood or charcoal fire or a running small gasoline engine, produce large amounts of carbon monoxide,” said Greiner. “It is not possible to open enough windows to eliminate the risk.  People sometimes 'get away' with burning a grill or running a gas engine indoors because it takes a period of time for deadly levels of carbon monoxide to accumulate in their blood.  If they burn the grill longer, or run the engine longer, they are overcome.  Carbon monoxide reduces the ability of the brain to think clearly and people often do not respond to the danger by getting to fresh air.  It is NEVER safe to burn a charcoal grill or small engine indoors, no matter how many windows are open." 

Other steps in addition to carbon monoxide alarms will reduce your exposure to carbon monoxide:

  • Have a professional inspect your furnace or boiler annually.
  • Check all venting systems to the outside, including flues and chimneys for proper design and installation, cracks, corrosion, holes, debris or blockages. Animals and birds can build nests in chimneys, preventing gases from escaping.
  • Check all other appliances - water heaters, clothes dryers, kitchen ranges, ovens or cook tops, wood burning stoves, gas refrigerators -- that use flammable fuels such as natural gas, oil, wood or kerosene.
  • Use an exhaust hood vented to the outdoors over gas ovens and cook tops.
  • Be sure gas space heaters are vented properly. Unvented space heaters that use a flammable fuel such as kerosene or liquefied petroleum (LP) can release carbon monoxide into the home.
  • Barbecue grills should never be operated indoors.
  • Do not use a gas stove top or oven to heat the home.
  • Check fireplaces for closed, blocked or bent flues, soot and debris.
  • Check that the clothes dryer vents to the outdoors and is not plugged with lint.
  • Never warm up or operate vehicles in the garage.


Contacts :

Thomas Greiner, Extension Housing Engineer, (319)377-9839, tgreiner@iastate.edu


Willy Klein, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-0662, wklein@iastate.edu