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Threat of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Escalates During Very Cold Weather

Towson, Maryland (January 9, 2014) – Produced by the incomplete burning of solid, liquid or gaseous fuels such as oil, kerosene, natural gas and wood, carbon monoxide (CO) is a deadly gas that robs the body of oxygen. It is especially dangerous because it is invisible and odorless. CO can make you sick, or even kill you, without your knowing it is there.

During the winter months, first responders often see CO buildup related to improperly maintained fireplaces, furnaces and wood stoves; ranges and stoves used as supplemental heating devices and especially to the improper use of portable generators.

"This information is extremely important and can be a matter of life and death," said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "I hope that everyone will read this carefully and share it with family and friends."

Use of CO Alarms

The easiest and most effective tool to prevent CO poisoning is use of CO alarms, which sound an alert based on exposure to the gas over time. (CO, measured in parts per million, is a cumulative gas; at high levels, it can kill quickly, and at low levels it can gradually sicken.) The device will go off before the average adult would experience symptoms of CO exposure, allowing people to get out of the house and take steps to correct the source of the problem.

In two separate incidents one day last month, 10 county residents were taken to local hospitals after carbon monoxide leaks related to faulty home furnaces. Significantly, neither household had a single carbon monoxide detector.

"CO alarms save lives," said Fire Chief John Hohman. "Every home that includes a fuel-burning appliance has the potential to generate carbon monoxide, and every home should have alarms to detect carbon monoxide."

Emergencies involving CO have resulted in important state and local regulations regarding CO and CO detectors, including a Baltimore County law requiring carbon monoxide alarms in all rental housing. There has been one fatal incident in Baltimore County since this law was enacted several years ago, and none since 2010.

Mike Mohler, Chief Administrator of Permits, Inspections and Approvals, said the current cold snap is a good time to remind all tenants and landlords in Baltimore County that, under county law, all units with a fuel-burning appliance or heating system, including a fireplace, must have installed a fully functioning CO detector. "If your alarm sounds, dial 911 and get out of the house. First responders will try to identify the source of the problem and will mitigate the emergency by ventilating the home and, if possible, shutting off the source of the CO. If the problem involves a plumbing or appliance repair, the homeowner or landlord must contact a licensed contractor."

Additional information about carbon monoxide is available on our fact sheet.

About Portable Generators

Portable generators have become popular tools for dealing with power outages. Data from the National Fire Protection Association shows that, nationwide, CO illnesses and deaths related to the use of generators have risen along with generator sales.

Generators emit far higher levels of CO than an automobile. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO build-up in the home.

Never operate a generator indoors including in basements or garages even if they are ventilated. Operate generators at least 15 feet from windows, doors and vents that could allow CO to enter your home.

For additional information, see our fact sheet on portable generator use.