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City of Alexandria, VA City of Alexandria, VA
Fire Department
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Page updated Oct 10, 2012 2:11 PM
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Carbon Monoxide — The Silent Killer

The winter months are here. As the mercury begins to dip, some families, struggling to stay warm, will turn on the kitchen stove burners and the oven in an effort to take the chill off of their home. What these families don’t realize is how dangerous this practice can be. A gas oven or range top should never be used for heating. A fire could start and poisonous carbon monoxide (CO) fumes could fill the home. Any fuel-burning heating equipment (fireplaces, furnaces, water heaters, space or portable heaters), generators and chimneys can produce carbon monoxide.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) there is an increased risk of dying in a home fire during the winter season. December, January and February are generally the deadliest months for fire.

Often called a silent killer, CO is an invisible, odorless, colorless gas created when fuels, such as gasoline, wood, coal, natural gas, propane, oil and methane, burn incompletely.

CO enters the body through breathing. CO poisoning can be confused with flu symptoms, food poisoning and other illnesses. Some symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, light headedness or headaches.

Everyone is at risk for CO poisoning, but infants, pregnant women and people with physical conditions that limit their ability to use oxygen, such as emphysema, asthma or heart disease, can be more severely affected by low concentrations of CO than healthy adults. High levels of CO can be fatal for anyone, causing death within minutes.

The goal of the Alexandria Fire Department is to reduce the number of carbon monoxide incidents in the City of Alexandria and discourage anyone from using the range or oven to heat their home. Install CO alarms inside your home to provide early warning of accumulating CO. Have your heating equipment inspected by a professional every year before cold weather sets in. Use generators outdoors away from all doors and windows and vents.

  • CO alarms are not substitutes for smoke alarms. Know the difference between the sound of smoke alarms and CO alarms.
  • Test CO alarms at least once a month.
  • If your CO alarm sounds, immediately move to a fresh air location outdoors or by an open window and doors and call for help. Remain at the fresh air location until emergency personnel say it is okay.
  • If the audible trouble signal sounds, check for low batteries or other trouble indicators.

Safety Tips

  • Have your home heating systems (including chimneys and vents) inspected and serviced annually by a trained service technician.
  • Never use portable generators inside homes or garages, even if doors and windows are open. Use generators outside only, far away from the home.
  • Never bring a charcoal grill into the house for heating or cooking. Do not barbeque in the garage.
  • Never use a gas range or oven for heating.
  • Open the fireplace damper before lighting a fire and keep it open until the ashes are cool. An open damper may help prevent build-up of poisonous gases inside the home.
  • Install battery-operated CO alarms or CO alarms with battery backup in your home outside separate sleeping areas.
  • Know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning: headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, sleepiness, and confusion. If you suspect CO poisoning, get outside to fresh air immediately, and then call 911.

Know the Symptoms of CO Poisoning

  • Because CO is odorless, colorless, and otherwise undetectable to the human senses, people may not know that they are being exposed. The initial symptoms of low to moderate CO poisoning are similar to the flu (but without the fever). They include:
    • Headache
    • Fatigue
    • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea
    • Dizziness
  • High level CO poisoning results in progressively more severe symptoms, including:

    • Mental confusion
    • Vomiting
    • Loss of muscular coordination
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Ultimately death
  • Symptom severity is related to both the CO level and the duration of exposure. For slowly developing residential CO problems, occupants and/or physicians can mistake mild to moderate CO poisoning symptoms for the flu, which sometimes results in tragic deaths. For rapidly developing, high level CO exposures (e.g., associated with use of generators in residential spaces), victims can rapidly become mentally confused, and can lose muscle control without having first experienced milder symptoms; they will likely die if not rescued.

The Alexandria Fire Department wants everyone to be warm and safe this winter. Make sure your home has carbon monoxide alarms.


For more information on these and other safety tips, please visit the following websites:

National Fire Prevention AssociationThe Consumer Product Safety Commission; or contact the Alexandria Fire Department’s Community Services Office at 703.746.5260. 

900 Second Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
703.746.5200
Fax: 703.838.5093
TTY: 703.838.4896

Office Hours:
Monday - Friday
8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.