Carbon Monoxide — The Silent Killer

The winter months are on the way. As the mercury begins to dip, some families, struggling to pay their heating bills, will turn on the kitchen stove burners and the oven in an effort to take the chill off of their home. What these families don’t realize is how dangerous this practice can be. A gas oven or range top should never be used for heating. A fire could start and poisonous carbon monoxide (CO) fumes could fill the home. Any fuel-burning heating equipment (fireplaces, furnaces, water heaters, space or portable heaters), generators and chimneys can produce carbon monoxide.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) there is an increased risk of dying in a home fire during the winter season. December, January and February are generally the deadliest months for fire.

Also, hundreds of people die each year from unintentional CO poisoning. Fire departments responded to an estimated 61,000 CO incidents in 2005, a 9% increase from 2004. (This excludes incidents where a fire was present.) Close to 90% of CO incidents occur in the home.

Often called a silent killer, CO is an invisible, odorless, colorless gas created when fuels, such as gasoline, wood, coal, natural gas, propane, oil and methane, burn incompletely.

CO enters the body through breathing. CO poisoning can be confused with flu symptoms, food poisoning and other illnesses. Some symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, light headedness or headaches.

Everyone is at risk for CO poisoning, but infants, pregnant women and people with physical conditions that limit their ability to use oxygen, such as emphysema, asthma or heart disease, can be more severely affected by low concentrations of CO than healthy adults. High levels of CO can be fatal for anyone, causing death within minutes.

The goal of the Columbia Fire Department is to reduce the number of carbon monoxide incidents and discourage anyone from using the range or oven to heat their home. Install CO alarms inside your home to provide early warning of accumulating CO. Have your heating equipment inspected by a professional every year before cold weather sets in.

  • CO alarms are not substitutes for smoke alarms. Know the difference between the sound of smoke alarms and CO alarms.
  • Test CO alarms at least once a month.
  • If your CO alarm sounds, immediately move to a fresh air location and call for help. Remain at the fresh air location until emergency personnel say it is okay.
  • If the audible trouble signal sounds, check for low batteries or other trouble indicators.

The Columbia Fire Department wants everyone to be warm and safe this winter. Make sure your home has carbon monoxide alarms.

Carbon Monoxide Facts (Courtesy NFPA)

  • U.S. fire departments responded to an average of seven calls per hour for non-fire carbon monoxide incidents in 2005. That’s an 18% increase from 2003, most likely due to an increase in the use of CO detectors.
  • In 2005, January and December were the peak months for non-fire carbon monoxide incidents in which CO was found.
  • The peak time of day is between 6:00 p.m. and 9:59 p.m.
  • Overall, 75 percent of non-fire CO incidents are reported between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 10:59 p.m.
  • Almost 9 out of every 10 (89 percent) reported non-fire CO incidents took place in the home. In contrast, homes accounted for 75 percent of the structure fires reported that year. (Homes include one- or two-family dwellings, manufactured homes, and multifamily dwellings, including apartments, condos, town houses, row houses, and tenements.)
  • In 2003, there were an estimated 60,600 unintentional CO detector activations, in which carbon monoxide was not detected, this includes CO detector malfunctions and false alarms. (Due to the increasingly large size of the national database, false alarms and false calls were not included in the publicly released NFIRS data for 2004 and 2005.)
  • In 2003, 46 percent of all CO-related non-fire calls reported to fire departments were carbon monoxide incidents, in which carbon monoxide was found. Fifty-four percent of all CO-related non-fire calls reported to fire departments were false alarms, or no CO was found.

Source: NFIRS and NFPA survey