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Similar to smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors are an essential warning device in every home — perhaps even more so. While sleeping, residents might be awakened by the smell of smoke and take action, but carbon monoxide is odorless and can disable and kill without warning.

Odorless and invisible. Carbon monoxide is produced whenever a fuel is being burned. It is odorless and invisible. Car exhaust produces carbon monoxide. So can a charcoal fire, a gas- or oil-burning heater, or even a wood-burning stove. All of these must be vented to the outside to not only remove smoke, but also carbon monoxide.

Here are some of the most common sources of home carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Home heating system. A home with a gas heater produces carbon monoxide, which normally is vented out of the house. With age, a part called the heat exchanger can crack and allow the gas to leak into the home. Other home heating dangers can occur with any sort of portable, fuel-burning device that is not vented. Gas log fireplaces must be properly vented as well.
  • Appliances.  Gas-burning stoves, ovens, dryers and water heaters all produce carbon monoxide and must be properly vented.
  • Generators. During a power outage, generators should only be operated outside to vent exhaust. Never run a generator inside a house or garage.
  • Automobiles.  Never have a car, motorcycle or any gasoline-powered vehicle running inside a closed garage. An unhealthy buildup of carbon monoxide gas can occur even if the garage door is open.

Symptoms of poisoning.  Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be mistaken for the flu minus a fever. Headache, dramatic tiredness, dizziness and confusion are all indicative of carbon monoxide poisoning. Final stages of carbon monoxide poisoning are lack of muscular control, and unconsciousness leading to death.

Prevention. Have fuel-burning appliances installed by trained, licensed professionals. Have the appliances inspected annually and repaired, if necessary.

Install carbon monoxide detectors. Some smoke detectors now have dual capability. Place one in each bedroom or just outside the bedroom door so that anyone sleeping in the house will be awakened in an emergency.

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the dwelling immediately and call 911. Seek medical evaluation and let the fire department examine the property for a leak. Do not return to the house until the source has been identified and repaired.