Wintertime carbon monoxide poisonings prompt warning

Dec 20, 2012

Augusta — Health officials tracking the seasonal increase in carbon monoxide (CO) poisonings in Maine are urging Mainers to heat their homes safely this winter, and to be extremely cautious while working on engines in garages.

Since November, seven people have been sent to hospitals with CO poisoning, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (MeCDC). Malfunctioning home heating sources were the cause of five of these poisonings, and two people were poisoned while working in their garages, one from exhaust that built up while working on a car engine and the other from space heaters.

In Maine, about 75 percent of all reported cases of CO poisoning occur between November and March. “The cases we have seen so far this season reflect what our data continue to tell us are the biggest risks for carbon monoxide poisoning,” said MeCDC Director Dr. Sheila Pinette. Most poisonings are caused by home heating systems or other home heating appliances that are not working properly or that have blocked vents. Anything that burns fuel, such as an oil or propane boiler or wood stove, produces CO. When these appliances are not properly maintained or vented, CO can build up inside a home without anyone's noticing.

“We are also highly concerned about people who leave motors running while they work on them in garages or in out buildings. This is extremely dangerous, even if windows or doors are open,” said Pinette. About one in five cases each year occur in garages, sheds or barns while people conduct engine repair or maintenance.

In another recent event, a CO detector alerted a family to the presence of the poisonous gas coming from a wood stove, allowing them to get out of their home safely. The overwhelming majority of poisonings reported to ME-CDC involve areas where there are no CO detectors present.

“Having an electric carbon monoxide detector with a battery backup near where people sleep can save lives and is especially important when heating your home. But it is even more important to keep carbon monoxide from ever building up in your home,” said Pinette. CO cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and can be deadly.

“Make sure your heating system is running safely, check flues for nests or other blockages, don’t let engines run in the garage and put fresh batteries in your carbon monoxide detector or get a detector if you don’t have one,” said Pinette. “These are the best things you can do to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning this winter.”

CO facts

CO is a gas that can cause sickness, coma or death when it builds up in enclosed spaces. It is not seen, does not smell and cannot be tasted. Warning signs of poisoning include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness and confusion, but no fever. CO exposure results in more than 100 emergency department visits each year in Maine. Nearly half (46 percent) of Maine homes are without a CO detector, leaving its residents without adequate protection against CO poisoning.

To prevent CO poisoning, health officials recommend the following:

Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.

Don't leave vehicles or any other gas-powered motors running inside a garage or other enclosed space, even if you leave the windows and doors open.

Don't use a gas-powered generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gas or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement, or garage or near a window or door. Generators should be more than 15 feet from your home when running.

Don't try to heat your home with a gas oven.

Make sure you have a CO detector that runs on your home’s electricity and has a battery backup in your home near where people sleep. Check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. You can buy a detector at most hardware stores or stores that sell smoke detectors. By law, all rental units must have a CO detector — talk to your landlord if you don’t have one in your apartment or rental house. CO detectors are also required in all newly built homes, as well as in other homes after either a major remodeling project or change of ownership.

If your CO alarm goes off, get out of the house right away and call 911. Get prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseous.

For data about CO poisoning in Maine go to

For more about the CO detector law see

Comments (1)
Posted by: Richard W Burbank | Dec 30, 2012 14:51

I totally agree with this article but want to highlight that the commonly available CO alarms don't go off at lower levels of CO that can cause health problems.  They may prevent death but not injury.  Here is a great blog post that goes a bit more in to detail about CO levels and monitors.

I can take an hour or several hours of dangerous CO to exist before the alarm is tripped.  Depending how risky your heating or combustion system is, you will want a much more sensitive monitor.

Read more here:

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