There’s a new law today in Washington State requiring carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in apartments, condos, and single-family residences. You should have a CO detector on every level of your home (more tips below). I know you’ve heard that CO poisoning is not only dangerous but also potentially fatal. We also often hear horrific stories of accidental deaths from carbon monoxide after natural disasters. A recent study found disaster related deaths are particularly common (your power’s wiped out so you bring in a generator or grill for heating or cooking and get exposed to CO). Using a generator indoors is the most common cause of CO poisoning, followed by use of a grill. Unfortunately, over 400 people die in the US each year from CO poisoning—all of which could be avoided with proper education and detection in the home. The odd thing is that we often get to see CO toxicity play out on our favorite television shows (think Mad Men)~ the ever-again scene where someone clogs up the exhaust pipe of a car with a banana or handkerchief and dies (or attempts to) due to the toxic fumes.

One generator running inside a home, garage, or basement creates the equivalent carbon monoxide of 6 idling cars. Precisely why a generator needs to be 20 feet from inside spaces and away from open windows/doors. Carbon monoxide is found in combustion fumes–it can be produced by cars and trucks, small gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, burning charcoal and wood, gas ranges, and heating systems. You likely know all this. But…

The thing to know: carbon monoxide in and of itself is more dangerous to babies and young children. Infants in utero, newborns, and young children process carbon monoxide differently, have more severe reactions, and may see effects faster than adults. If you and your young child were in a room that was filling with carbon monoxide, it’s your baby or child that would suffer the consequences first. They may not know how to tell you about their complaints and if they were sleeping you may not even know. Hence all of us needing a CO detector.

carbon monoxide teaching fr CDC

The Science of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning:

The red blood cells in our blood circulate oxygen to all of our muscles and organs for survival. When carbon monoxide (CO) is in the air it can function as a disguised villain. When carbon monoxide is inhaled into the lungs via contaminated air, the red blood cell picks up the CO instead of just oxygen. Each carbon monoxide molecule that attaches to a red blood cell displaces a spot for oxygen. Therefore the circulating red blood cells go around the body without oxygen causing improper circulation. Organ failure and death can result after higher and higher level of our cells are bound to CO instead of oxygen.

The graphic is from the Centers For Disease Control (CDC)’s comprehensive review on CO poisoning.


Additionally, problems in making the diagnosis of CO poisoning exist. An August 2012 study found that poisonings and deaths might be underestimated in the United States. We can miss the diagnosis or miss knowing when a child or adult is suffering from CO poisoning because of the vague symptoms that present. After CO exposure, the complaints that come up first sound a lot like a whining preschooler trying to get out of eating their broccoli: vague headache, drowsiness, nausea (and/or vomiting), or achiness. All symptoms are non-specific and can really feel like you have a “flu” coming on. Physicians have to ask about exposures and may not be prompted to do so in the exam room. If you are ever concerned about a potential CO exposure, call immediately to be seen by a physician and don’t be shy about bringing up the potential exposure.

Carbon monoxide deaths still happen in the US –predominately in those over age 65 years–but they can happen at any age. As I stated above, babies and small children are more vulnerable for injury and death.

Carbon monoxide is like a ghost in that it’s difficult to prove its presence  –it’s colorless, odorless, and tasteless. None of our 5 senses can detect it’s presence. You have to have a detector.

Tips For Getting A Carbon Monoxide Detector At Home:

  • Every family needs a carbon monoxide at home. Even if you don’t have a fireplace or gas stove, install a CO monitor on every floor of your residence. Ideally install it in a hallway outside the bedrooms of your home or apartment. Ensure they are near sleeping spaces because people can get carbon monoxide poisoning during sleep and may not alert/awaken to recognize the symptoms. As of January 2013, all rental apartments, condos, and homes along with all new residences, are required to have CO detectors regardless of heating units used. Any home that remodels or sells will also need a CO detector by law.
  • In Washington, if you rent an apartment, condo or home ask your landlord to provide a CO monitor now. Your request is now backed by the law!
  • When buying a detector, know that you can purchase a dual smoke-CO monitor or just add a CO monitor to your home. They range from about $20-$100 online. Check to ensure it’s “UL-2034 Compliant” which means it’s up-to-date on surveillance and safety. Some CO detectors will require power (and must have battery back-up) or just be battery-powered.
  • Change the batteries to your CO detector and smoke detector every time you change your clocks.
  • Remind friends and family never to bring or run portable stoves, generators, grills, or fuel sources inside the home or garage.
  • Have your furnace or heater cleaned and checked annually for safety.
  • Additional information on Carbon Monoxide from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), The Center For Disease Control, and Safe Kids USA.