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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Submitted by Lorene Bartos, UNL Extension Educator

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Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless deadly gas. It is the leading cause of poisoning deaths in the United States. With cool weather here families start turning on heat. Carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion and comes from burning fuel.

Any fuel burning appliance in the home is a potential source of CO. Included are gas or oil furnaces, gas clothes dryers, water heaters, fireplaces, charcoal grills, gas ranges, wood burning stoves and space heaters. Improperly operating appliances can produce fatal CO concentrations in the home. Therefore it is important to make sure all appliances are in good working order and routine maintenance is done on all heat sources.

Automobile fumes also contain carbon monoxide and can enter the home through walls or doorways if a car is left running in the garage.

Symptoms of exposure to low levels of CO are mild headaches and breathlessness when doing moderate exercise. Acute exposure includes symptoms such as severe headaches, tiredness, nausea, dizziness, confusion, impaired judgment, loss of memory or coordination. Since many of these symptoms are flu-like and are ignored the "silent killer" may cause death. The difference between flu and carbon monoxide are when you are away from the source or CO you feel better.

Every family should do a routine check of the home for potential problem sources of carbon monoxide. Check the following to prevent CO poisoning:

  • Forced air furnaces: should be inspected as they are frequently the source of leaks.
  • Burners and ignition systems: mostly yellow flames in natural gas-fired furnaces are often a sign fuel is not burning completely and higher levels of carbon monoxide may be released.
  • Space heaters: vent properly.
  • Fireplaces: check for closed, blocked or bent flues, soot and debris.

In addition to checking your home take these steps to insure your home and family are safe:

  • Install CO detectors near sleeping areas.
  • Never use a gas oven to heat the home.
  • Use an exhaust fan vented to the outdoors over gas stoves.
  • Make sure all gas appliances are vented properly.

Carbon monoxide detectors should be placed on every level of the home. It is suggested to install one near sleeping areas and the other near the home’s heating sources. CO detectors are relatively inexpensive. There are two types — electric plug in or battery operated wall/ceiling units. Select a detector that is Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listed.

If you have a carbon monoxide detectors check them to see they are working properly. If you do not have one installed in your home — now is the time to install at least one. Remember carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and can fill the home before it is noticed. As a result many deaths are reported yearly because someone didn’t take the time install a detector to alert their family of the potential danger of the "silent killer".

Ask Lorene

(This resource was updated October 2012 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

Contact Information

University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Lancaster County
Web site: lancaster.unl.edu
444 Cherrycreek Road, Suite A, Lincoln, NE 68528 | 402-441-7180