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02-02-09 Carbon Monoxide Detector in Home

Why should you have a carbon monoxide detector in your home?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, nonirritating gas that is a by-product of incomplete burning of carbonaceous material. CO poisoning may be lethal and even if the exposure is nonfatal, may also result in permanent disability. CO poisoning is considered one of top causes of accidental poisoning death in the United States. While smoke inhalation from a house fire may be a source of exposure, other common sources of CO in the home are heating systems, generators, and grills. Outbreaks of CO poisoning occur particularly during power outages due to the use of generators. Occasionally, families may use a charcoal grill in the home for either cooking or a heat source. This high risk practice is also a known source of severe CO poisoning.

CO binds with a high affinity to hemoglobin, thus making the hemoglobin unable to carry oxygen. In addition, CO shifts the oxyhemoglobin curve to the left which reduces oxygen release to the tissues. Thus there is a reduction in the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood; however, this is not the only mechanism of toxicity. CO binds to other heme proteins such as myoglobin and cytochrome oxidase resulting in disruption of cellular respiration. CO increases the production of free radicals, which may result in delayed neurologic sequelae which can result in severe impairments.

CO has no warning properties prior to onset of symptoms from its tissue effects. These symptoms are nonspecific and are usually perceived as a flu-like illness or food poisoning. Use of a functioning CO detector in the home may provide early warning of elevated levels of CO, before significant toxicity occurs. The source of the elevated CO level can then be identified and repaired.

Most smoke detectors, which are more routinely found in homes, do not provide monitoring of CO levels.

Question prepared by: Saralyn R. Williams, M.D. Medical Toxicologist

In the Poison Center Hotline, we have received calls from physicians regarding patients who have been using generators in the house during our recent cold snap. Entire families have been exposed to carbon monoxide. A number of television stations in TN and Kentucky are trying to educate the public about the dangers of generators.