Carbon Monoxide CO: Silent Killer In Our Midst

Carbon Monoxide Alarm

Carbon Monoxide. CO. There is a silent killer in our midst. We can’t see it, can’t smell it, can’t taste it, or detect it without tools. It is in nearly every home yet most do not think about it. Every year over 400 people die and tens of thousands are sickened and permanently weakened by this silent killer.

Guest post by ‘Minerjim’

Carbon monoxide, one carbon atom and one oxygen atom, makes for a deadly molecule. Carbon Monoxide, CO, as it is sometimes referred to, is produced by burning nearly every carbon-based fuel in air. Natural gas, propane, coal, wood, kerosene, gasoline. The by-products of combustion of these fuels are mostly carbon dioxide, but in each case CO is also produced, especially if the combustion is incomplete due to lack of oxygen. (no man-made combustion process today is 100%)

The insidious thing about CO is that it only takes a minuscule amount to harm or kill you. As little as 100 parts per million (ppm) can give you a headache after 1-2 hours, 400 ppm can be life threatening after 3 hours.

How Carbon Monoxide Poisons You

How can such a small amount be so deadly?? It has to do with how CO affects the hemoglobin in our bloodstream.

Normally, hemoglobin carries oxygen from our lungs to the organs of the body and returns with Carbon Dioxide to release, which we do when we exhale. When we breathe in CO, the hemoglobin grabs it up quickly.

In fact, hemoglobin has an affinity for CO that is 200 times its affinity for oxygen. So the CO gets grabbed up first and oxygen gets pushed aside. But it does not stop there. The CO stays attached to the hemoglobin for hours, so as it is taken up it begins to saturate the blood. No oxygen can be taken up and taken to the cells of our organs, and they begin to die.

Ever wonder why smokers have such high rate of heart disease? It is from the Carbon Monoxide (CO) in the smoke they inhale. The first organ that blood goes to after exiting the lungs is the heart. Smokers are basically killing off heart muscle slowly as they inhale CO from their smoking!


Carbon Monoxide in Modern Society

Carbon Monoxide (CO) has pretty much been with us all along. However, as man started to find better ways of heating and lighting homes, the sources increased.

Coal and Wood Stoves

Coal and wood stoves produce a lot of CO, especially when starved for air. How many of us bank up a stove and shut the air back to get through the night? (creating incomplete combustion in the stove, evidenced by the smoke) For the most part we are okay because we have a good flue system with a good draft. But what if that draft starts to get ‘iffy’ as we go deeper into winter due to a dirt flue or stove pipe??? Or if a wind change outside starts blowing small amounts of smoke back into the room while we sleep?

Gas Heating Systems

Gas heating systems can be problematic too. Most forced air systems are good to go, but if you have a crack in a heat exchanger, you can get CO into the home. Some of these gas heaters without a vent, the so called “100% catalytic vent-less” types are a danger too. They claim that they can provide a 100% clean burn, but what if they get dirty? (which they do) You are going to get CO.

Lanterns and Oil Lamps

Indoor gas and liquid lighting is also a big source of CO. I love Coleman lanterns (I have 35 of them!) and Aladdin type lamps, but I always crack a window, and have tools to monitor CO.

Old versus New Construction

Back in the “Old Days” the houses were not constructed as ‘tight’ as they are today. Basically, they leaked air like crazy, which is why old houses took so much energy too heat. In most old houses, better than half of the heat loss was from ‘Infiltration’, or cold air leaking in. With this amount of air leakage CO could not build up as quickly inside. Still, death from CO happened as inadequate venting and flues were common. With newer ‘tight’ construction, less infiltration means that gases can build up inside, and CO can concentrate if a source is there.


Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

So how do we know if the Silent Killer is sneaking up on us??? Fortunately, we have learned to recognize clues that it is about. Here are the tell-tale signs:

– Headache
– Nausea
– Dizziness, lightheaded, fatigue
– Muscle aches
– Shortness of breath

If you experience any of these while in a closed space (home, cabin, shop, mine, etc) ask yourself: Am I getting sick, or am I being made sick by something I can’t see, smell, or taste? At this point it might be good to err on the side of caution, open a window or door and get some ventilation. Or better yet, get out! But there still is a better way of protecting yourself from the Silent Killer.


Identifying & Protecting Yourself From The Silent Killer, CO

Thankfully modern technology has been able to provide us with tools to detect this killer. I am talking about Carbon Monoxide (CO) detectors!

Carbon monoxide detectors first started becoming available in the early 80s, and were only for use in industrial and commercial environments.

One of the first commercial installations I remember in Colorado was on the Beaver Creek ski area underground parking garage. Our design team specified and had built the ventilation system controlled by CO detectors monitoring the CO level from car exhausts in the garage.

By the end of the 80s and into the early 90s, CO detectors started becoming available for residential use.

Modern Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Today CO detectors are readily available in many configurations. For those who are off grid, there are battery powered units. New construction is required by code to have permanently wired, battery back-up type units. Usually these are ‘Combo’ units, being both smoke and CO detector system that tie all units in the home together so they all alarm on a detection of either smoke or CO.

Prices for CO detectors range from $10 up online, cheap enough that there is no excuse not to have one or two in the house, preferably one in each sleeping room and one in the main living room. You should also have one in the barn, shop and garage too. Anywhere you can have CO produced by combustion.

[Ken adds:]
Plug-In CO Alarm with Battery Backup
Battery Operated CO Alarm

‘Clip on’ Carbon Monoxide Detectors

CO detectors are not limited to wall mounted units either. There are many small ‘clip on’ type units that you can carry on your person. In nearly every mine I go into these days, the miners all have these units clipped to their ‘diggers’ as a standard part of their safety gear, along with headlamps and self-rescuer units.

‘Clip on’ CO Detector

I know there may be some concern that these smoke and CO detectors contain small amounts of radioactive materials. Let me assure you that the material is safely encased in metal in the detector and poses no health threat.

(I am an engineer with 40-years’ experience in Mining, Nuclear, Petroleum industries and have dealt with many, many ventilation and environmental issues and designs).

I would venture to guess that you are a million times more likely to die from smoke or CO inhalation than you would from the radioactive source in a detector installed normally in a home.

There is no reason that anyone should die by this Silent Killer. NONE! We have the tools to detect it. What is needed is awareness and detectors. Simple enough, but there are still some out there that won’t bother. We need to look out for these people and help them get protected. Detectors are cheap enough for anyone to buy and put up for a friend.

Be Safe,


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