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carbon monoxide detector

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

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Last Edited: 9/29/2010

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Who is at Risk?

People and animals of all ages are susceptible to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.  There are certain risk factors, conditions, and activities that may increase susceptibility to CO poisoning.

Common risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Chronic heart disease
  • Anemia-- a reduced number of healthy red blood cells
  • Respiratory problems such as asthma

Persons belong to the following groups may be at an increased risk for CO poisoning:

  • Fetuses and infants-- due to their small size, this group is more likely to have developmental disorders as a result of CO poisoning
  • Adults age 65 and older-- this group is more likely to have a respiratory or heart condition that may predispose them to more severe CO poisoning

CO poisoning is especially harmful to  people who may be sleeping or are under the influence of alcohol.  People in these situations may inhale toxic amounts of CO without recognizing the symptoms of CO poisoning.


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What activities may increase CO levels?

  • Warming up vehicles in enclosed spaces (e.g. garages)
  • Using poorly maintained or unvented heating equipment
  • Leaving chimneys clogged or blocking exhaust vents
  • Using a gas stove or oven to heat an enclosed area (e.g. inside a house)
  • Using propane-fueled equipment (e.g. stoves, heaters) inside a tent
  • Engaging in activities near engine exhaust outlets (e.g. tailpipes, exhaust vents)
  • Teak surfing-- Teak surfing is a recreational activity that involves body surfing in the wake of a boat or other motorized water vessel. This may result in CO inhalation.  Teak surfing is illegal in California. The California Department of Boating and Waterways provides more information on the dangers of teak surfing.

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Deaths due to CO poisoning

CO poisoning kills over 500 people every year.  It is the leading cause of accidental poisoning in the United States.  Fatality rates are highest in people age 65 and over.  This group is more likely to have a respiratory or heart condition that may predispose them to more severe CO poisoning.

A study conducted on the causes of unintentional deaths from CO poisoning in California found that alcohol played a factor in many of deaths.  Other factors included one or more of the following: heating or cooking appliances, charcoal grills, small engines, or camping equipment.1 


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Emergency department visits and hospitalizations due to CO poisoning

Annually, over 20,000 emergency department visits in the United States are attributed to CO poisoning.  Approximately 4,000 people are hospitalized due to CO poisoning every year.


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Racial/ethnic disparities in hospitalizations due to CO poisoning

Limited research suggests that Hispanic and Black populations may be at greater risk for CO poisoning than White populations. 

A study conducted in Washington state revealed that Hispanic and Black populations experienced more unintentional CO poisoning-related morbidity than White populations.2  

Similarly, a study conducted in California found that males and Black populations experienced the highest unintentional deaths due to CO poisoning.1 


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1. Girman JR, Chang Y-L, Hayward SB, Liu K-S. Causes of unintentional deaths from carbon monoxide poisonings in California. West. J. Med. 1998; 168:158-165.

2. Ralston JD and Hampson NB. Incidence of severe unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning differs across racial/ethnic categories. Public Health Rep. 2000; 115(1):46-51.