I am blogging from home this morning as the nation's capital is under assault from old man winter once again.  As the blizzard rages on, I wonder how many additional people in the metro area will lose electricity today. I am grateful to live in the city where the power lines are underground (and not as susceptible to weather-caused outages), but colleagues and friends in parts of Virginia and Maryland are not so lucky.

In fact, as experienced with other major weather events, some individuals have resorted to desperate – and unsafe – measures, including using improperly ventilated portable generators to scrounge up power and relying on charcoal grills and other fossil fuel burning appliances/devices to warm their homes. Unfortunately, very few understand the danger posed by taking these actions: the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an insidious, "silent killer." High concentrations of CO – an odorless, colorless gas which is produced when fossil fuel is incompletely burned – can cause cognitive impairment, loss of consciousness, coma, and even death. The symptoms of carbon monoxide mimic those of the flu: headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath, which can make it difficult to recognize. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that over 200 people die annually from CO poisoning, and recommends that consumers install CO detectors in their homes to provide an early warning of elevated levels of carbon monoxide.

CO alarms and detectors are a cost-effective, reliable way to protect people from CO poisoning.  Two dozen states and over 50 local/municipal jurisdictions require their installation in homes, commercial lodging and other dwellings. Even if your home (like mine) is all-electric and doesn't have an attached garage, it still doesn't hurt to have a CO detection device, particularly if you live in an apartment building where you cannot know what actions your neighbors may be taking that could threaten your life. There's enough for you to worry about during weather catastrophes – don't let the silent assassin be one of them.


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