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Occupational & Environmental Epidemiology

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. Appliances, generators, heaters, and power tools fueled with natural gas, liquefied petroleum (LP gas), oil, kerosene, coal, gasoline, or wood may produce CO. Burning charcoal and running cars also produce CO.

Every year, approximately 450 people in the United States die from CO exposure and thousands visit hospital emergency rooms for treatment (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). Cold weather or storms can be a time of increased exposures from gas-powered generators, kerosene heaters and other "fueled" heating or cooking methods. Care should be taken to ensure that only heating appliances approved for indoor use are used indoors and that rooms are adequately ventilated. Generators should be used outdoors only and placed well away from windows, doors, and vents. Boating can also pose a hazard for carbon monoxide poisoning. Some larger boats tend to have generators that vent toward the back of the boat, causing an increased danger for people swimming near the rear deck.

Everyone is at risk for CO poisoning or death from CO exposure. However, unborn babies, children, the elderly, and individuals with existing upper respiratory conditions are at greater risk for illness or death.

Health Effects & Symptoms

Exposure to CO can cause loss of consciousness and death. The initial symptoms of CO poisoning resemble the flu. The symptoms include: headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, and dizziness. People who are exposed while sleeping or drinking can die from CO poisoning without noticing symptoms.

What to Do

If you are experiencing the symptoms of CO poisoning, get fresh air immediately! Open windows and doors for ventilation and turn off any combustible appliances and leave the building. Call 911 or have someone take you to a hospital emergency room and tell the physician you suspect CO poisoning.

If you do nothing, you could lose consciousness and die.

Prevention

Carbon monoxide illness and death is preventable with several easy steps:

  • Install a CO detector/alarm that meets the requirements of the current UL standard 2034 or the IAS 6-96 standard.
  • Make sure appliances are installed according to manufacturer's instructions.
  • Never burn charcoal indoors.
  • Never use portable camping equipment indoors.
  • Never leave a car running in an attached garage.
  • Never use gas appliances, such as a stove, to heat your home.
  • Do not use gasoline-powered tools or generators indoors, or outdoors near doors and windows.
  • Do not operate un-vented fuel-burning appliances in rooms with closed doors and windows, or in rooms where people are sleeping.
  • For workplaces:

North Carolina CO Incidents

  • A man and his dog were found dead in a trailer where a kerosene heater and gas generator were being used.
  • A woman died in her apartment and another resident was treated for CO poisoning after using a charcoal grill for heat.
  • Five people became ill and were transported to a local hospital emergency room after using a propane cooker in their home.
  • A man died from CO poisoning when he placed a generator on his porch and fumes filled the home through a crack in the window and door. Another resident who was using oxygen for medical reasons survived.
  • A family using a gas-powered generator in the garage all suffered from dizziness and fatigue.
  • A woman was found dead in her living room. She had left her car running in the garage under the living room.

Facts and Figures

For Additional Information