Each year in early fall the media inundates the general public with safety notices regarding the effects of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Just as the leaves change color and fall from the trees, the warnings about CO poisoning emerge in the media. Unfortunately, these warnings often go unheeded by homeowners and business owners.

As the weather turns colder and people turn on their furnaces, some quickly find out that their equipment, which has been lying dormant for several months, now refuses to work. In that case, I have to believe that most people would call a licensed professional to come out and inspect the equipment. Maybe that is a generous point of view, but for the time being let’s assume that most homeowners and business owners, in general, exercise common sense.

Now let’s assume that there are some people who will not call a professional, opting instead to find alternative forms of heat. Maybe they go out and purchase a propane heater or one or two electric space heaters. Surely these will serve as temporary sources of heat, they think. The problem is, the temporary substitutes can be dangerous, especially if they eventually become semi-permanent. If the danger doesn’t immediately become apparent, the situation can lead to thinking, “Oh well, we’ve made it this far into winter — let’s just fix the problem next year.” And many people will “luck out” and live to see another heating season. These are the people who don’t get the message and, even if they do, they ignore it.


I recently ran across a story of four people who died of apparent CO poisoning in New Jersey. A contractor in the area said the investigation scene was not for the squeamish. He wrote to tell me that a policeman had informed him that there was so much blood around two of the victims, it was as if “their heads had exploded.”

While this situation is not typical of CO poisoning deaths, that graphic description will stick in my mind for a long time. Call it a different form of shock therapy, if you will.

Maybe shock therapy is what we need to get the message out to people who continue to ignore the warning signs of CO poisoning. The example I gave of people substituting permanent heating with temporary fixes only covers one small part of the problem. What if the home or business owner is getting heat and feeling safe and comfortable? Does that mean that the CO poisoning threat isn’t real? No.

The CO poisoning threat is real inside any structure. Maybe it will take graphic images to get the point across.

I can quote CO poisoning death totals from a number of different sources. Some put annual totals at 150, while others estimate upwards of 400 or more — possibly up to 1,000. What difference does it make? One death is one too many.

I recently had a conversation with Timmie McElwain, the president of Gas Appliance Service, a training and consulting company based in Riverside, RI. We talked about CO poisoning and the need for consumer education and proper testing/alarm devices.

McElwain mentioned that many deaths that are apparently due to “natural causes” could be directly tied to CO poisoning. He said the reason that so many CO poisoning deaths go undocumented is because autopsies are seldom used to document deaths that are not deemed suspicious.

Does that mean the number of deaths from CO poisonings could be in the thousands instead of hundreds? It’s possible.

Is that a reason for more training and more CO awareness for home and business owners? You know the answer.

John Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-542-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); johnhall@achrnews.com (e-mail).

Publication date: 12/09/2002