Exposing an invisible killer - The dangers of carbon monoxide

Published on January 26, 2009
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) urge families to inspect, protect and detect to safeguard loved ones from the “Silent Killer”

Students from the Columbia Secondary School in NYC Joined UL’s Gus Schaefer, FDNY Chief Sal Cassano and NFPA President James Shannon at the press conference to kick off CO Awareness Week.

UL’s Gus Schaefer, FDNY Chief Sal Cassano and NFPA President James Shannon join Heather Caldwell from Kidde at the press event to kick off CO Awareness Week. According to NFPA research, fire departments respond to more than 60,000 CO incidents each year.

Northbrook, Ill., January 26, 2009 Bitter cold weather can bring more than just frosty mornings and runny noses. Along with the winter chill come the dangers of deadly carbon monoxide (CO), whose odorless reach extends into household living spaces as more families turn to alternative methods - such as a fireplace, wood stove or portable heater - to heat their homes and save a few dollars. A new survey*released by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), an independent product safety testing organization, revealed that while many Americans claim they have some familiarity with the dangers of CO, many others admit their knowledge is shallow, a red flag considering CO is a significant problem in the U.S., sending more than 15,000 people to the emergency room each year (according to a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The survey also revealed only half of Americans actually have a working CO alarm installed in their home and a whopping seventy-seven percent of American seniors believe CO can be easily detected by human senses.

Known as the “Silent Killer”, CO is produced by incomplete burning of fuel, such as propane, kerosene, gasoline, oil, natural gas, wood and charcoal. A CO leak can be attributed to many common household sources including malfunctioning gas-fired appliances, space heaters, chimney flues and portable generators.

Because you cannot see it, smell it or taste it, you or your loved ones could be exposed to CO without even knowing it. The symptoms – headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath are often mistaken for the flu.

Municipal fire departments respond to an average of seven calls an hour where CO is present, according to a 2005 NFPA report on Non-Fire Carbon Monoxide Incidents.

“Each day, first responders are called upon to help people who have unknowingly been exposed to carbon monoxide and are suffering from CO poisoning,” says James Shannon, president and CEO of the National Fire Protection Association. “It is vital for people to learn how to keep themselves and their families safe from CO before they are exposed to it. When it reaches a dangerous level, its effects may leave them unable to make that life-saving call for help.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more non-fire CO incidents occur in the month of January than at any other time of year. UL and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an authority on fire and life safety, have teamed up to increase awareness about the dangers of carbon monoxide and urge families to INSPECT, PROTECT and DETECT when it comes to CO safety:

 Have a qualified technician INSPECT fuel-burning appliances once a year



  • Fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, hot water heaters and stoves require yearly maintenance. Over time, components can become damaged or deteriorate. A qualified technician can identify and repair problems with your fuel-burning appliances.
  • Avoid placing your CO alarm directly on top of or directly across from fuel-burning appliances.

PROTECT your home by purchasing and installing a CO alarm

  • Purchase and install UL-LISTED CO alarms outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home, including the basement and any other locations required by applicable laws; be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully before installing the alarm.
  • If you already have CO alarms installed in your home, make sure to test them monthly and replace the battery at least once a year.

Be prepared should your CO alarm DETECT a problem

  • If your alarm sounds, immediately open windows for doors and ventilation and move to a fresh air location outdoors. Make sure everyone from inside the home is accounted for. Call for help from a fresh air location and stay there until emergency personnel arrive.
  • If anyone in the home is experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning – headache, dizziness or other flu-like symptoms – immediately evacuate the house, call the fire department and seek medical attention.
  • Be alert to some of the danger signs that signal a CO problem:
    • Streaks of carbon or soot around the service door of your fuel-burning appliances
    • Moisture collecting on the windows and walls of furnace rooms
    • Fallen soot from the fireplace or small amounts of water leaking from the base of the chimney

"A CO alarm should not be confused with a smoke alarm," says John Drengenberg, manager of Consumer Affairs for UL. "A smoke alarm tells you to get out immediately. A CO alarm warns of a potential poisoning risk, usually long before symptoms are apparent, which allows you adequate time to get help. You need both life-safety devices in your home."

About Underwriters Laboratories
Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is an independent product safety certification organization that has been testing products and writing Standards for Safety for over a century. UL evaluates more than 19,000 types of products, components, materials and systems annually with 21 billion UL Marks appearing on 72,000 manufacturers' products each year. UL's worldwide family of companies and network of service providers includes 62 laboratory, testing and certification facilities serving customers in 99 countries. For more information, visit: http://www.ul.com/newsroom.

About NFPA
NFPA has been a worldwide leader in providing fire, electrical, building, and life safety to the public since 1896. The mission of the international nonprofit organization is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education.

*Survey Methodology
KRC Research conducted this survey on behalf of Underwriters Laboratories (UL) October 16-19, 2008. Results captured are from a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,001 adults ages 18 and over.  The margin of error for the overall study is +/- 3.1 percent. The data was weighted by demographic variables to ensure the sample accurately reflects the U.S. adult population. 

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Media contacts:

Lorraine Carli
National Fire Protection Association
Phone: +1 617 984-7275

Joe Hirschmug
Media Relations Manager
Underwriters Laboratories
Phone: +1 847 664-1508

Tina Janczura Stanton
GolinHarris for UL
Phone: +1 312 729-4349

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