You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. You can’t taste it. You could be breathing it right now, being poisoned to death without even knowing it. It’s carbon monoxide (CO), and it’s deadly. It’s known as “the silent killer” because we can’t sense it, and it can kill slowly or in minutes.
The problem is very real. In 2002, over 12,000 calls related to CO in Ontario were received by the Canada Safety Council.* In the winter of 2013, several families in the Toronto area were killed in their sleep by carbon monoxide**. In Canada, 380 deaths were caused by accidental CO poisoning from 2000–2009, according to Stats Canada.***
According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 400 Americans are killed every year from carbon monoxide poisoning, which makes it responsible for more poison-related deaths than any other form of poisoning.
Carbon monoxide is naturally produced as a combustion by-product. So anything that consumes fuel will produce carbon monoxide. That’s why leaving a car idling in an enclosed space like a garage is so dangerous.
But many common household items are also potentially lethal sources of CO. Gas or oil powered water heaters and furnaces are common sources of accidental CO poisoning. Kerosene and propane space heaters claim lives every winter as a result of CO poisoning. And fireplaces that don’t draw properly also pose a risk. Any device or appliance that burns fuel and is not ventilated properly represents a potential risk.
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide poisoning does produce recognizable symptoms, including:
- Confusion or irritability
But quite often the symptoms of CO poisoning are mistaken for those of other illnesses, such as the flu. And since CO poisoning can strike quickly, it’s not uncommon for victims to fall asleep perfectly healthy, and never awaken if exposed to carbon monoxide as they sleep.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
You can ensure you stay safe with a simple CO alarm. They’re not expensive – most are less than $50 – and they’re available at most hardware stores. Just make sure you get one that’s certified by the CSA (Canadian Standards Association).
Install one or more alarms near the furnace and living/sleeping areas. Test the alarm regularly according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If you hear the alarm sound, leave your home immediately. Dial 911, and do not go back inside your home until the problem has been professionally fixed.
Also, it’s important to make sure your furnace and any other fuel-burning appliances are installed correctly and serviced regularly by a professional.
CO Detectors are Now Mandatory By Law
As of October 15, 2014, homeowners in Ontario must install a carbon monoxide detector or face a fine. Just like the laws for smoke detectors and seat belts in cars, the law will no doubt save many lives. You can learn more about the law here.
Everyone is at Risk
Who’s at risk of becoming a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning? Everyone. But certain groups are more susceptible to the dangers of carbon monoxide, such as the very young and the elderly. People with underlying health concerns such as respiratory illnesses and heart disease are also more likely to succumb to CO poisoning.
But everyone is a potential victim. That’s because the effects of carbon monoxide are cumulative. When you breathe CO, it accumulates in your blood. As blood levels of CO increase, your body’s ability to distribute oxygen throughout the body degrades. If CO poisoning is allowed to progress unchecked, brain damage and death can eventually result from a lack of oxygen at the cellular level. In essence, your body suffocates to death.
Avoid Becoming a Statistic
The insidious nature of carbon monoxide poisoning makes it seem somewhat of an innocuous threat. As the old saying warns, a threat that’s out of sight also tends to be out of mind.
But the tragic annual death toll racked up by carbon monoxide poisoning each year disproves another old saying: “What you can’t see won’t hurt you.”
Carbon monoxide poisoning kills many poor souls every year that neither see nor smell the danger. They just slip away without ever knowing they were in danger. That’s why it’s so important to stay very alert to the potential perils of carbon monoxide poisoning, and to protect yourself with an alarm.