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Thomas H. Greiner, Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Extension, (515) 294-0464,
Laura Sternweis, Extension Communication Systems, (515) 294-0775,

Carbon Monoxide Alarms for Vehicles Could Save Lives

AMES, Iowa -- Are personal carbon monoxide (CO) alarms for vehicles and other uses a good idea for consumers? Thomas Greiner, an agricultural engineer with Iowa State University Extension, thinks they are worth considering.

"Every year thousands of people die from carbon monoxide produced by engines. Many of the fatalities could have been prevented if carbon monoxide alarms had been installed," he said. Greiner has been directly involved in CO investigations and in educational efforts to reduce the risks of breathing the colorless, odorless, poisonous gas.

CO alarms are continually being improved. CO alarms for homes are listed either with Underwriters Laboratories or International Approval Services. There is no comparable standard, at present, for CO alarms in motor vehicles, Greiner said. "Until there is a standard, I suggest people look for a vehicle alarm manufactured by a known, experienced and reputable company."

In 1993 carbon monoxide from motor vehicles caused 2,086 known fatalities in the United States. Even low levels of CO can affect a driver's reaction time, seriously impair judgment and cause fatigue and drowsiness. As more CO is breathed, symptoms mimic influenza -- or carsickness. As CO levels continue to increase, the lack of oxygen to the brain causes CO intoxication. People become dizzy, confused and unable to recognize they are not thinking clearly. Convulsion and coma can occur, with permanent damage to the brain or other organs, followed by death.

"A healthy person driving only short distances in a vehicle with a defective exhaust system might have no symptoms, but on a longer trip might have severe problems, an accident or die. Unborn children, older people and people with heart and respiratory problems are especially susceptible to CO poisoning," Greiner said.

The best prevention method is to keep CO from entering the vehicle. A poorly tuned engine can produce 100 times more CO than a good running engine. Maintenance and repair are vital. Greiner said the following defects should be repaired immediately:

* holes in mufflers or exhaust systems
* holes in the vehicle body (allowing gas fumes into the passenger area)
* any malfunction of the emission control system

However, even with the best maintenance, a vehicle can be a source of CO. For that reason, vehicles should NEVER be run inside, Greiner warned. "Briefly warming up a vehicle inside a garage, even with the garage doors open, can produce enough carbon monoxide to cause occupants in the building to become ill. If the garage is attached to the house, people in the house could become ill even hours after the vehicle has been removed. In homes with CO alarms, the sounding of the alarm alerts people to this danger."

For more information about preventing CO poisoning, check the ISU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Web site (


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