Carbon monoxide poisoning – the silent killer |

Carbon monoxide poisoning – the silent killer

North Dakota billboards, placed in four major cities, following a veto on carbon monoxide detector legislation.
Courtesy photo |

Spring is in the air, and rodeos, fairs and camping trips are on the agenda. These activities come with their share of hazards. One deadly hazard, that is sometimes overlooked, is carbon monoxide poisoning.

The rodeo world recently lost 27-year-old, Justin Cunningham to the deadly gas, when it leaked from the generator in the stock portion of his trailer, into the living quarters. And eight years ago, CO poisoning took 18-year-old best friends, Mike Hilman and Jesse Andrus, after competing in a pro-rodeo in Arizona.

RV safety advocates say every year 500 people die inside of RV’s from carbon monoxide poisoning. The best defense against that happening is a CO detector. The Center for Disease Control urges those using portable generators to keep them outside only, more than 20 feet from the home, doors and windows.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, during 2010-2015, a total of 2,244 deaths resulted from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, with the highest numbers of deaths each year occurring in winter months. In 2015, a total of 393 deaths resulting from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning occurred, with 36 percent of the deaths occurring in December, January or February.

The National Fire Protection Association reported that during 2006-2010, municipal fire departments responded to an annual average of 72,000 carbon monoxide incidents, excluding incidents where nothing was found or fire was present. NFPA says close to 500 people die each year, and 50,000 people visit a hospital emergency room from CO poisoning.


Carbon monoxide (CO) is emitted when fuel, such as natural gas or propane, is burned. It is odorless and colorless, and virtually impossible to detect without help. When an excess of CO is inhaled, it reduces the blood stream’s ability to hold oxygen. Once the oxygen level is depleted, the body stops functioning properly. In extreme cases, the body completely shuts down.

The risks are elevated in confined areas, such as campers, without proper ventilation. CO is found in fumes produced by gas ranges, vehicles, portable generators, camp stoves, lanterns or by burning charcoal and wood. CO from these sources can build up in enclosed or even partially enclosed spaces, silently poisoning people and animals.

At high levels, carbon monoxide can cause death within minutes. Some age groups are more vulnerable to CO poisoning. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, smokers, and those with lung, anemia or other circulatory system problems are at higher risk.

The initial symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to a common cold or flu. Anyone exposed to CO emissions, complaining of headaches, dizziness, weakness or excessive sleepiness, nausea, chest pain or general confusion should seek medical help immediately. The key is to respond quickly. Turn off appliances and open doors and windows.

Another piece to keep in mind is altitude. The effect of CO is heightened with a change in elevation. Also, alcohol or drugs can play a role in intensifying CO poisoning. People who are sleeping or who have been drinking alcohol can die from CO poisoning before ever having symptoms.


Some states have taken CO poisoning to the capitol, to try to slow the silent killer down.

After a series of tragic CO poisoning deaths in Colorado in late 2008 and early 2009, then-Governor Bill Ritter signed House Bill 09-1091, also known as Lofgren and Johnson Families Carbon Monoxide Safety Act, into law. This bill went into effect on July 1, 2009, requiring that all single and multi-family residences that have a fuel burning heater or appliance, a fireplace, or an attached garage that are sold, rented, remodeled or repaired, by law, has to have a carbon monoxide detector.

Getting the bill passed was not easy, according to Don Johnson, president of The Lauren Project, an organization dedicated to preventing similar tragedies by providing CO education, along with carbon monoxide detectors and advocating for legislation. In fact, the bill did not pass the first year it was introduced.

Lauren died at the age of 23 in her Denver apartment. “We encourage people to think about their young adults,” Johnson said. “It’s such an easy fix,” he added, referring to CO detectors.

In December 2015, Nebraska adopted a similar law. Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, CO law requires that carbon monoxide detectors be installed in all residences that are sold, rented or significantly renovated. The Nebraska law requires that dwellings with a “fuel-fired heater or appliance, a fireplace, or an attached garage” have detectors on each habitable floor.

Johnson testified for that legislation and has testified in other states. Some have not been as successful. Last year, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed a bill requiring carbon monoxide detectors in certain rental properties. It would have required residential rental property that includes a wood or other fuel-fired fireplace, heater or appliance or an attached garage to be equipped with carbon monoxide alarms, with some exceptions.

Support for Burgum’s veto included Rep. Kathy Skroch, who believes it’s a personal responsibility. “We, as a government … I think have to be mindful of not imposing regulations on private enterprise,” Skroch said following the veto.

But Johnson points out, it’s a simple, cheap fix, and some think they can just call for help if they start having CO poisoning symptoms.

“It’s not that easy. It can happen very quickly,” Johnson said. “It confuses you.” Johnson said there was evidence on Lauren’s phone that she had tried to call for help.


But other states are on board with the cheap fix.

There are 27 states and the District of Columbia that require carbon monoxide detectors in private dwellings via state statute: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia (via adoption of the International Residential Code), Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Certain states limit the installation to buildings with fossil-fuel burning devises, others only require the devise be installed upon sale of the property or unit.

Another 11 states require carbon monoxide detectors in private dwellings regulatorily through the adoption of the International Residential Code or via an amendment to their state’s building code: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Wyoming.

Lauren’s Project volunteers work closely with the Red Cross, through their Home Fire Preparedness Campaign in order to provide more education regarding carbon monoxide and to provide and install detectors for individuals in need. The project covers everything from public speaking, to door to door visits and handing out CO detectors.

While the peak times for CO poisoning is in the winter, Johnson encourages everyone to not wait until next winter. Get a CO detector today. “Don’t wait; it can happen any time of the year.”

For more information on Lauren’s Project, go to 