- The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report that shows an upward trend in non-fire carbon monoxide poisoning deaths.
- Common engine-driven tools (generators, lawn mowers, power washers) accounted for the largest portion of carbon monoxide poisoning deaths unrelated to structure fires.
- Experts say it's important to know the potential sources of carbon monoxide in the home, and to install carbon monoxide detectors throughout a house.
Carbon monoxide deaths caused by common consumer products have been trending upward for seven years, a new report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that’s released whenever something is burned, especially fuels such as charcoal, diesel, propane and gasoline. This includes everything from vehicles to power washers to gas stoves. The potentially deadly gas can accumulate in enclosed spaces and poison humans and pets without warning.
The new report found that common engine-driven tools—such as generators, lawn mowers, paint sprayers, power washers, and snow blowers—accounted for the largest portion of carbon monoxide poisoning deaths unrelated to structure fires. These were followed by heating systems and most poisonings occurred at home.
Here’s what to know about carbon monoxide poisoning, and how to protect yourself and others around you.
Poisoning More Common During Winter, and in Men and the Elderly
For the report, CPSC experts looked at national reports of carbon monoxide deaths that occurred between 2009 and 2019. They did not include deaths that were not caused by consumer products, but other sources of carbon monoxide, such as structure fires.
They found that during those 11 years, consumer products caused nearly 2,000 carbon monoxide poisoning deaths. Portable generators alone caused an estimated 765 of these deaths.
Deaths reached an all-time high in 2019, with 250 deaths—more than any other year. That year, the largest portion of these were caused by engine-driven tools, especially generators, which accounted for 40%. Heating systems, which include fuel-fed water heaters, furnaces and portable heaters, were the second most common sources of deadly carbon monoxide poisonings.
The report found that men and people age 45 and older were overwhelmingly the majority of people killed by carbon monoxide from consumer products, though the report did not dig into why this was.
More deaths also occurred in winter. According to Dan Colby, MD, a toxicologist and co-medical director of the department of emergency medicine at UC-Davis, he encounters spikes in patients in his own emergency room, coming in to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning during heat waves, cold snaps and times when nearby areas have lost power, such as following a flood or wildfire.
The World Health Organization warns that climate change is exasperating extreme weather events, as well as the health consequences of those events.
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Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning May Be Overlooked
Because carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, many people may not know they are being exposed to the gas.
“It doesn’t have the gas smell that happens when you turn on your stove,” Dr. Colby told Health. “You don’t know when you are being exposed to it.”
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning at low or moderate levels are also nonspecific, and often seem similar to the flu, which means it’s easy for signs to be overlooked, even in the emergency room.
“Sometimes people just don’t feel well or have headaches; some people have flu-like symptoms,” Dr. Colby said. “But because the average patient with those symptoms doesn’t have carbon monoxide poisoning, we often don’t test for that, and since it’s an odorless, tasteless gas, people often don’t know they have it.”
The most common symptoms of low- or moderate-level carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Shortness of breath
High-level carbon monoxide poisoning can cause more severe symptoms, which can look like:
- Mental confusion
- Loss of muscular coordination
- Loss of consciousness
Although everyone is at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, some people—including infants, pregnant people, the elderly, and people with underlying health issues, including chronic heart disease, anemia, and respiratory illness—may be at a greater risk of falling ill.
People who are sleeping or who have been drinking can die of carbon monoxide poisoning before symptoms even start, and people who smoke—and thus have higher baseline carbon monoxide levels in their blood—may also be at an increased risk and potentially throw off testing, Dr. Colby said.
Although high-level carbon monoxide poisonings tend to be more acutely dangerous, even poisoning that cause mild symptoms can have longterm health effects, said Lindell Weaver, MD, medical director of hyperbaric medicine at Intermountain Health in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Symptoms do not predict outcome,” Dr. Weaver said, noting that long-term damage may be more severe for people who are not treated until they’re in a coma, but that people who have not reached this state are not protected from serious side effects.
“Carbon monoxide is very interesting,” he added. “It not only drops oxygen levels, it turns on inflammation. Once that inflammation is turned on, it can harm the brain over the following days or months.”
As for treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning, clinicians are recommended to administer 100% oxygen to patients until symptoms subside—this can take about four to five hours. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy—which involves breathing 100% oxygen in a pressurized environment, to help the lungs collect more oxygen—may also be administered in severe cases, or in pregnant women.
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Making Your Home Safer
The best way to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning from household products is to have heating systems professionally inspected every year, the CPSC said.
It’s also important to install carbon monoxide detectors in multiple areas of the home, rather than just one room, said Dr. Weaver. Carrying a portable alarm while traveling isn’t a bad idea either, he said.
“Mine has gone off twice in my years of travel,” Dr. Weaver told Health, noting that on several occasions, hotels in the U.S. have had to evacuate guests due to high levels of carbon monoxide.
Dr. Colby added that it’s important to test carbon monoxide sensors, which can either be stand-alone units or combined with smoke detectors. Make sure the batteries work when you do your monthly test of your smoke detector batteries. Although many carbon monoxide detectors plug into an outlet, it’s also a good idea to have one that operates both using power and batteries, or only on batteries, so it still works during a power outage.
“Every home should have battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms or carbon monoxide alarms with battery backup on each level and outside separate sleeping areas,” Patty Davis, a spokesperson for CPSC told Health.
There are also easy ways to avoid bringing sources of carbon monoxide into enclosed areas.
Manufacturers have been under pressure in the past few years to make generators safer with automatic shut-offs that would prevent enclosed spaces from filling with dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, though they are not legally obligated to do so.
Running generators outside—at least 20 feet from a building, Davis said—and using extension cords to bring the power indoors is always significantly safer than running them indoors, but it’s important not to neglect other potential sources of carbon monoxide indoors. Homes also aren’t the only places that pose a risk.
“I’ve probably treated well over 80 patients who got poisoned using a concrete saw or propane or gas pressure washer inside a tractor trailer, basement or warehouse,” Dr. Weaver said. “Anything that burns fuel does make carbon monoxide, so if you operate it inside, you can get poisoned.”
Though carbon monoxide poisoning deaths from consumer products may be on the upward trend, overall rates of carbon monoxide poisoning deaths are still trending down—due in large part to increased awareness.
“Overall, carbon monoxide poisoning deaths are down long-term, as awareness of this issue has come up and as detectors have been standardized,” Dr. Colby said.
“Prevention is key,” Dr. Weaver said. “Don’t do things where you can get poisoned.”