Carbon Monoxide: The Senseless Killer

Carbon monoxide has been called "the senseless killer" because it is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas and thus nearly impossible for the human senses to detect. When inhaled, it quickly crowds out oxygen molecules that normally attach themselves to the hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells. The carbon monoxide-hemoglobin bond is more than two hundred times stronger than the oxygen-hemoglobin bond. As a result, not enough life-sustaining oxygen gets to tissues, causing illness and sometimes death. Each year, carbon monoxide poisoning contributes to an average of five hundred unintentional deaths and two thousand suicides in the United States, and accounts for roughly 15,000 emergency-room visits, according to the CDC.

Inside your home, fuel-based furnaces, space heaters, water heaters, clothes dryers, and fireplaces typically produce some carbon monoxide. Outside, gasoline-powered engines, such as those in cars, lawn mowers, and generators, emit carbon monoxide as well. When properly ventilated and in good working order, all are safe to use, but potentially deadly problems may arise when they are not. That being so, how can you ensure that your home is safe from carbon monoxide?


  • Check for clues that may indicate a problem: excessive condensation on walls and windows; a damaged, rusty, or sooty furnace, heater, chimney, or flue; stale, smelly air (a sign of improper ventilation); or a furnace that runs constantly or fails to heat the house adequately.
  • Be aware of physical symptoms, since the human body may also give indications of carbon monoxide buildup in the home. Headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, and general flu-like symptoms are the most common symptoms of low-level poisoning.
  • Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas-, oil-, or coalburning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year. A chimney sweep should clean and inspect your fireplace and chimney, too. Follow the advice of these experts, and have them make the repairs needed to keep your home safe and healthy.
  • Invest in carbon monoxide alarms and install them on every floor of your home, especially near sleeping areas.
  • Don't use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline- or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement, or garage, or near an open window.
  • Don't leave engines running inside your garage or use your oven or stove to heat the house. Never burn charcoal inside your house, even in the fireplace.

Excerpted from How Not to Die by Jan Garavaglia, M.D.

Copyright © 2008 by Atlas Media Corp. and Jan Garavaglia, M.D.

Permission granted by Crown Publishers, New York, NY