What are the most common causes of carbon monoxide (CO) toxicity?

Updated: Sep 18, 2018
  • Author: Guy N Shochat, MD; Chief Editor: Gil Z Shlamovitz, MD, FACEP  more...
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CO is formed as a by-product of burning organic compounds. Many cases of CO exposure occur in private residences. [2] CO toxicity is especially common during power outages due to storms, as a result of the improper use of gasoline-powered portable generators to provide electricity and indoor use of charcoal briquettes for cooking and heating. [3, 4] Exhaust from generators and propulsion engines on houseboats has also been linked to CO poisoning. [5]

Most fatalities from CO toxicity result from fires, but stoves, portable heaters, and automobile exhaust cause approximately one third of deaths. These often are associated with malfunctioning or obstructed exhaust systems and suicide attempts. Cigarette smoke is a significant source of CO. Natural gas contains no CO, but improperly vented gas water heaters, kerosene space heaters, charcoal grills, hibachis, and Sterno stoves all emit CO. Other sources of CO exposure include the following [6, 7] :

  • Propane-fueled forklifts
  • Gas-powered concrete saws
  • Inhaling spray paint
  • Indoor tractor pulls
  • Swimming behind a motorboat

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