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Carbon Monoxide: The Dangerous and Silent Killer

Updated on October 3, 2010

Caution: Poison

Carbon Monoxide Gas: The Silent Killer



Carbon monoxide is a gas that has no odour, taste or color.  Chemically speaking, it is known as CO which is one carbon attached to one oxygen molecule.  It is produced when a fuel does not burn completely because of a lack of air (oxygen).  These fuels include natural gas, kerosene, oil, wood and propane. 


Carbon monoxide can build up within a home, cottage, camper, tent and any enclosed space, especially those on boats.  Build up occurs when there is inadequate venting for airflow due to blocked or damaged vents. 


The prevention of the build up of carbon monoxide is a two step procedure.  The first step is to ensure that all fuel burning appliances have an adequate supply of fresh air to ensure that the fuel is burned completely.  As mentioned previously, carbon monoxide is the by product of incomplete burning of the source fuel.  By burning the source fuel completely, no carbon is left to bond with oxygen creating the deadly gas. 


The second step is to install carbon monoxide alarms.  If you have an attached garage, wood or gas fireplace, and/or gas appliances such as furnace, water heater or range, you need a carbon monoxide alarm.  These alarms should be placed on each level of the house (basement, main floor and all upper floors) in your home, cottage, boat or any enclosed space.  Read your manufacturer’s pamphlet for more information.


As carbon monoxide is a “heavy” gas, it sinks and crawls along the bottom of the walls and along the floor.  Carbon monoxide alarms should be place low to the floor and should have a high sensitivity to reading low levels of the gas.  A digital read out is recommended so that you can read the levels before the levels become too high and dangerous. 


Even with proper venting and carbon monoxide alarms, one should know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning as it can become fatal if not detected in time.  As of 2008, the leading cause of deaths due to poisoning in North America is carbon monoxide. 


It cannot be stated enough that carbon monoxide is invisible.  It is colorless, tasteless and odourless.  When breathed in, it enters your bloodstream.  Once it has entered your bloodstream, it can be potentially fatal as it inhibits your blood in your body from absorbing oxygen.  With less oxygen in your bloodstream, you become tired and drowsy.  Other symptoms include nausea, headache, burning eyes, and confusion.  These symptoms mimic those of the flu but there is no fever.  If exposure occurs during the night when you are asleep, you will fall into a deeper sleep.  If these warning signs are not heeded, then the continued exposure to the carbon monoxide will eventually lead to unconsciousness and, possibly, death. 


If you experience any or all of these symptoms, then remove everyone, including pets, from the source of the carbon monoxide to the fresh air outside.  The antidote to carbon monoxide exposure is fresh air.  Once outside, contact your local fire department or local emergency number for help.


It is imperative that infants and young children are removed from the source of carbon monoxide immediately.  The carbon monoxide is absorbed more quickly by them because they have a higher metabolic rate.  As a result, the effect of the carbon monoxide is quicker and faster, thus the symptoms show up quicker in them than in adults. 


The best way to ensure that your family is not exposed to the dangers of carbon monoxide is to take proactive steps and eliminate it at the source.  Make it a priority to ensure fuel burning sources are well maintained with good, clear sources of ventilation.  For a peace of mind, install carbon monoxide alarms on each level of the home to provide adequate time to evacuate should the need arise. 


With these measures in place, enjoy family gatherings around your fireplace or woodstove this winter!   


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