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Avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning demands caution

While warming up a car before driving it or closing up the house when it's cold might seem second nature to most, winter temperatures can cause people to forgo safety for the sake of warmth.


While warming up a car before driving it or closing up the house when it’s cold might seem second nature to most, winter temperatures can cause people to forgo safety for the sake of warmth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide poisoning was listed as a contributing cause of death for more than 16,000 people in the U.S. from 1999 to 2004, and about 400 people continue to die each year from accidental exposure.

Grand Forks Fire Marshal Brandon Boespflug said the number of calls the fire department receives for possible carbon monoxide poisoning always increases in the winter.

“A lot of folks will have an attached garage and they’ll start their vehicle and all that carbon monoxide can get into the house,” he said.

But it’s a year-round problem. After the Flood of 1997, the number of reports of elevated carbon monoxide levels increased dramatically. The same thing has happened after most natural disasters around the country, specifically Hurricane Sandy, as appliances were damaged in the event and gave off more of the toxic gas.


Carbon monoxide is emitted when a fuel source is burned, but cars aren’t the only things that emit the gas; about 170 people die every year from carbon monoxide produced by nonautomotive products, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. These products can include furnaces, ranges and water heaters.

Boespflug recommended checking furnace vents, which are usually on the roof or side of a house, for ice and snow blockage in the winter.

The odorless, colorless gas also kills about 184 children every year, and Altru Health System has several safety tips for avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning.

  •  Don’t use a grill, generator or camping stove inside your home or garage.
  •  If you need to warm a vehicle, remove it from the garage immediately after starting it. Don’t leave an engine running inside a garage, even if the doors are open.
  •  Never use your oven or stovetop to heat your home.
  •  On the outside of your home, make sure vents for the dryer, furnace, stove and fireplace are clear of snow and other debris.
  •  Store gasoline in a well-ventilated area.
  •  Be aware of idling vehicles in attached garages; carbon monoxide can travel through vents and into a home very quickly.

Contrary to multiple reports, North Dakota does not require homes to have carbon monoxide detectors by law. The small monitors, which usually plug into outlets, easily monitor the gas and are available for purchase at most hardware stores. Minnesota does require carbon monoxide detectors within 10 feet of every room in a home that is lawfully used for sleeping purposes.
Altru recommends having an alarm on every level of a home, especially near sleeping areas. Avoid placing them near kitchen appliances, as they are more likely to go off unnecessarily.

Boespflug said every time a carbon monoxide alarm goes off, the fire department takes the call seriously even though most end up being detectors that need to have batteries replaced.

“We will respond,” he said. “We have very advanced meters that can detect levels, so we go out to the home and check them.”

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to the flu and include headache, shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. Noting whether a person is running a fever is an important step to take, as carbon monoxide poisoning rarely causes high body temperature.

If a person notices these symptoms, it is recommended they evacuate the house quickly and notify the fire department.

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