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Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

By Bryan McWhorter
Published: August 4, 2016 | Last updated: January 17, 2022 11:20:40
Key Takeaways

The dangers of CO poisoning and how to protect yourself and your family.

Source: IanAllenden/

It was a lazy winter morning back in 2005 when my wife received a phone call from our daughter who was also a new mom. Her husband had gone to work and she was feeling like she had the flu. My wife jumped at the chance to go and see our granddaughter and help our daughter out.

About ten minutes after my wife left, I received a phone call from her and I could hear the panic in her voice. Our daughter was barely conscious and the house had a horrible odor.

By the time I arrived, all of them are outside of the house, standing in the cold. When I stepped inside their home, I was immediately hit by the smell of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is practically odorless; this alerted me immediately to the high exposure level. My wife got them out in time and they were fine, although the event may have scared a year off of her life.


Fast forward to January, 2016, my wife and I notice a strange odor in our house at about the same time our carbon monoxide detector sounded the alarm. Our hot water heater had shifted a little due to age and rust, and was no longer venting properly. Our house was filling with carbon monoxide.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

We normally do not give much thought to the idea that our furnace or hot water heater is capable of poisoning us to death. Each year about twenty thousand people in the U.S. go to the emergency room for CO poisoning.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious health topic according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The U.S. has approximately 400 carbon monoxide related deaths each year, and carbon monoxide is the leading cause of fatal poisonings in North America.

Carbon monoxide poisoning has been attributed to faulty furnaces, hot water heaters, stoves, portable heaters, etc.. Almost anything that uses gas as a fuel source can provide this danger. Ever since the close call with our daughter and granddaughter, I have been more attentive to this threat. It led me to purchase our own carbon monoxide detector for our home.

As the safety officer and trainer for Philips Lighting, I initiated yearly campaigns alerting employees to the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and safe guards against it.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, almost odorless gas which can lead to illness and death. If you are in your home as CO levels rise, it is very difficult to detect. Carbon monoxide is the “ninja” of common poison gases; you may not detect it until too late.

The permissible exposure limit set by OSHA is 35 parts per million over an eight hour time weighted average. In the event of a venting problem with a home furnace or hot water tank, it can exceed 35 ppm quickly.

Even a low level of carbon monoxide exposure can produce flu like symptoms. Among the symptoms are headaches, dizziness and nausea. When you consider the near odorless nature of the gas, it is easy to understand why someone’s first thought would be, “I have the flu, I’m going to go lay down.”

Carbon Monoxide Safe Guards

As with any recognized hazard, we need to have control measures in place to protect us. Since CO can invade the atmosphere we are breathing, and do so virtually unnoticed, detection devices are our best safe guard. The CDC recommends that every home has a carbon monoxide alarm. When my wife and I noticed the strange odor in our house, neither of us gave it much thought until our alarm went off.


When dangerous carbon monoxide levels are present, we need to be notified immediately. If you do not have a CO detector in your home, please purchase one as soon as possible. They can typically be purchased in the $20.00 price range, which is not bad for such an important, life saving device. If you already own one, check it each year prior to the cold weather season to ensure that it is working and has working batteries.

Have your CO detector mounted near where people sleep. Carbon monoxide is lighter than air, so do not mount it too low to the ground.

Some other safety precautions to protect against excessive CO exposure:

  • Ensure all gas utilizing devices (furnace, hot water tank, stove, etc.) are working properly and serviced annually. Poorly maintained heating systems are the number one cause of CO poisoning
  • Never use a gas stove for heating your home
  • If using a gas generator, keep it outside. It is recommended that they stay at least twenty five feet from the house when in use. Further is better
  • Never warm up your vehicle while it is in your garage

Completely Preventable!

The loss of life is always tragic. The loss of life from carbon monoxide exposure is one hundred percent preventable. It is easy to become complacent when considering items that we interact with daily. They blend into the fabric of our lives without a second thought given to danger.

The nature of maintaining safety at work or at home requires attention. It does not take a great deal of time or energy to keep ourselves safe. It does require, though, placing safety as something we highly value.

I can remember being a kid, speaking to adults I respected that were skilled craftsman. No matter what their field of expertise was, they all seemed to revere safety practices as important. These were often people I was working for to earn some extra cash after school or on weekends. They always seemed unbending on their safety rules, like making me wear googles when using a belt sander, etc.. To them, safety was a constant mindset and you did not take safety for granted. We need more of that type of thinking.

I don’t want to scare people into creating a safety mindset at work and home. Life can be scary enough with all the “what ifs.” Safety does requires attention and effort, and it does not happen by accident.

Acceptable Risks

Think about what you consider to be an acceptable risk. Not having a carbon monoxide detector was an acceptable risk for us until the event with our daughter and granddaughter. We were lucky to learn a lesson without actual harm done to anyone we love.

Fastening a seat belt, wearing a motorcycle helmet, and putting on the right PPE for the job all require attention, but little effort. I would not dream of riding my motorcycle without my helmet. It is not an acceptable risk to me, nor is possibly exposing my family to carbon monoxide.

When safety requires attention and not much effort, why not err on the side of caution? Does your home have a CO detector? Protect your family and encourage your friends and relatives to do the same. CO poisoning is a preventable threat that ought to be removed from your home.


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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

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Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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