Author(s): Lisa Braxton. Published on September 3, 2014.

I SHUDDER WHEN I THINK ABOUT the phone call I got from my mother last winter. My elderly parents were huddled in the snow outside their New England home. The fire department had ordered them to evacuate.

For several days my mother had noticed a strange odor in the house. My father dismissed it as nothing to be concerned about and opened the basement windows to air things out. Days later, with the odor persisting, he called the fire department.

Within minutes two fire trucks and a utility company van arrived. The furnace was turned off, and firefighters opened windows and brought in ventilation equipment. What the gas technician told my parents was unsettling. There had been two problems: there was a gas leak, which is what my parents had smelled, and the house also had a high level of carbon monoxide (CO). It was a rare combination of circumstances. If they had remained in the house for 15 more minutes, they would have gone to sleep and never awakened because of the CO. If either of them had turned on the light in the laundry room, the house could have exploded from the natural gas. My mother had planned to do laundry the day before, but a friend encouraged her to attend a club meeting with her instead.

About a week before the incident, I recall my mother telling me that the furnace had stopped working. I had no idea my kind-hearted father would hire an out-of-work handyman to do the repairs. The gas company technician told them that the repairs to the furnace had been botched; the furnace was the source of both the gas leak as well as the CO.

Natural gas is colorless and odorless, and an additive gives it its rotten-eggs smell. That smell likely saved my parent’s lives; they wouldn’t have called the fire department, and the problem with the CO—also odorless and colorless—would not have been discovered in time. I had no idea my parents didn’t have CO alarms.

According to the latest NFPA “Non-Fire Carbon Monoxide Incidents” report, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 80,100 non-fire CO incidents in 2010 in which carbon monoxide was found, an average of almost seven calls per hour. A Consumer Product Safety Commission Report found that in 2010 there were an estimated 161 unintentional non-fire CO poisoning deaths associated with consumer products. (Vehicles are not included.) The largest portion of non-fire CO poisoning fatalities, 36 percent, was associated with heating equipment.

Incidents like the one my parents experienced illustrate the importance of having a qualified professional install and maintain heating equipment and the importance of CO alarms. They should be installed in a central location outside each separate sleeping area, on every level of the home, and other locations as required by laws, codes, or standards.

As we prepare to head into winter, we’ll likely see a rise in CO poisonings. Incidents are more common in the cold-weather months because of the use of fuel-burning sources. It’s important to bring the hazards of CO and the importance of CO alarms into the conversation about safety. NFPA’s new Carbon Monoxide Safety Community Toolkit, available at nfpa.org/toolkits, provides resources for getting started.

I try not to think about what would have happened if my parents hadn’t called the fire department. Instead I focus on how proactive they became. They hired a qualified professional to fix the furnace, then went shopping—for CO alarms. 

 Lisa Braxton is an associate project manager in the Public Education Division at NFPA.