February 14, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence

With the cold breath of winter rattling our windows and gusting down our chimneys, it’s only natural to pull out extra heaters or stoke up a stove. However, any fuel burning appliance can be a potential source of carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that can be fatal if it goes undetected. Being aware of exposure symptoms, as well as taking some simple safety precautions can keep you safe.

Headache, difficulty breathing, dizziness, weakness and fatigue, nausea and vomiting, chest pain and confusion are all early indications of early carbon monoxide poisoning. Larry Piercy, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension safety specialist, said that those symptoms often are indicative of other illnesses, which increases the danger of fatal exposure.

“People may not recognize it unless they’ve got an alarm or something to alert them. It acts like so many other diseases, it’s really hard to identify,” he said. “And then in addition, at higher concentrations it causes some confusion, and so lots of times people really have difficulty identifying it as carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Prolonged exposure or higher concentrations of the gas can induce loss of consciousness and death. Piercy recommends that you go immediately outside to breathe fresh air if you experience any of the symptoms and you suspect the cause is carbon monoxide. Call 911 to get medical assistance and alert the fire department.

“Fire departments will come and check it out,” he said, “and if you suspect it, you should not go back in until it is confirmed that the building is free of carbon monoxide.”

A carbon monoxide detector is essential for any home that uses fuel burning appliances, such as furnaces, gas clothes dryers and water heaters. Piercy recommends installing a detector in the hallway outside each person’s bedroom.

Detectors come in both battery- and AC-operated models. Piercy says that as long as the device meets Underwriters Laboratories standards, each variety has its own advantage. The plug-in variety is easy and you don’t have to worry about replacing batteries.

“Except in times of power outage,” he said, “then it’s no longer able to detect. Some have a plug-in with a backup battery and that’s a nice feature, so if the power goes out the battery takes over, and you still have protection.”

The only concern with battery-operated models is that sometimes people do not replace the batteries when they go bad, which can lead to an extremely dangerous situation.

“Forget to replace the batteries and you have no protection at all,” Piercy said. “So I think it has to be up to the individuals to decide what is really best for their situation and circumstances.”

Piercy recommended a yearly inspection by trained technicians on all fuel-burning appliances and their vent systems. Some such appliances may have built-in safety features that will turn off the device if a problem is detected. However, relying solely on those features can lead to trouble. A yearly inspection can find problems before they happen. 

Operating a motor vehicle or small engine inside a closed structure such as a garage or basement should never be done, even if the windows and doors are open. A gas-driven engine produces a great deal of carbon monoxide that can reach hazardous levels very quickly. An open door or window will not provide enough ventilation to dilute the toxins in the air. For the same reason, never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, camp stove or lantern in a tent, camper or home. The build-up of carbon monoxide in the air can be swift and deadly.

“Never take a chance with carbon monoxide,” Piercy said. “It’s called the silent killer for good reason.”


Larry Piercy, 859-257-3000, ext. 107