Understanding the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning

February 14, 2024
Brigitta Gruenberg, Division of Public Health

Recent reports of carbon monoxide poisoning are a reminder that Idahoans get sick and die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning every year.

During 2022 and 2023, Idaho emergency departments averaged 12 to 14 visits each month for accidental carbon monoxide exposure. In 2023 there were three accidental carbon monoxide-involved deaths not due to fire in Idaho. 

Carbon monoxide (abbreviated as “CO”) is found in fumes produced any time you burn fuel, such as in fumes from vehicles, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, clothes dryers, water heaters, and furnaces. 

Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur in many different situations. These include when people: 

  • Use propane heaters, charcoal grills, or camp stoves inside

  • Run a generator, pressure washer or other gasoline-powered engine too close to the house

  • Turn on a vehicle inside a garage, even if the garage door is open

  • Use a gasoline-powered tool in a partially enclosed space

  • When a gas home appliance, such as water heater or furnace, is not functioning properly

Carbon monoxide has no odor or color. The only way to know you have a problem is when you get sick, or your carbon monoxide detector goes off.

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often described as “flu-like.” If you breathe in a lot of carbon monoxide it can make you pass out or kill you. People who are sleeping or drunk can die from carbon monoxide poisoning before they have symptoms.

Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning 

In your home:

  • Install a CO detector outside of every sleeping area and on every level of your home and test monthly. CO detectors are available as battery operated units or as units that plug into a standard outlet

  • Have oil and gas furnaces and hot water heaters inspected and serviced every year 

  • Only use generators outside, more than 20 feet away from your home, doors, and windows

  • Do not burn charcoal or use portable camp stoves indoors

  • Do not use your stove or oven to heat your home

  • Never run your car or truck inside a garage that is attached to a house, even with the garage door open. Watch out for accidentally pressing a remote start button for your car or truck while it is in the garage.

When recreating:

  • Have engine and exhaust system maintenance inspections of your boat, car, or truck every year

  • Do not use fuel burning equipment such as charcoal grills, camping stoves, camping heaters, or lanterns inside tents, campers, RVs, or other enclosed shelter

  • Do not use a gas range or oven for heating – only for cooking

  • Keep a safe space between RVs so CO from one RV’s generator can’t get into another RV through an open vent, air conditioner, or window

  • Install a CO detector in your camper, motorhome, RV, or boat cabin and test it before each time you use the vehicle

When using small gas-powered engines:

  • Do not use inside a building or partially enclosed areas unless the gasoline engine can be located outside away from the air intakes
  • Place the pump and power unit of high-pressure washers outdoors – run only the high-pressure wash line inside.
  • Use a personal carbon monoxide monitor with an audible alarm if working where potential sources of CO exist


Get to know carbon monoxide alarms:  https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/GetToKnow.pdf 

What to know about generators and carbon monoxide: https://www.cpsc.gov/safety-education/safety-guides/carbon-monoxide/what-know-generators-and-co 

Carbon monoxide hazards from small gasoline powered engines: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/co/default.html

Brigitta Gruenberg is the Environmental Health Program manager in the Division of Public Health.  

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening Idahoans' health, safety, and independence. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov

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