AMES, Iowa — Carbon monoxide is a killer, even in the summer, warns Thomas Greiner, an agricultural engineer with Iowa State University Extension. Charcoal grills can emit deadly carbon monoxide fumes. He recalled a tragic incident from a few years ago:
“In 1997 an Iowa couple died from breathing carbon monoxide from a charcoal grill,” Greiner said. “The couple was camping with friends. After grilling hamburgers on a table-top grill, they placed the lid on the grill to extinguish the coals. They visited with their friends until about 10 p.m., then placed the grill in a storage area underneath their camper, watched the news and went to bed. The coals re-kindled and the carbon monoxide from the grill penetrated the floor of the camper, killing the couple.”
An investigation by Iowa State University found that carbon monoxide from the grill entered the camper in less than two minutes and reached a deadly concentration of 500 parts per million in less than 60 minutes.
Never burn charcoal or place coals, even if they appear to be extinguished, inside homes, vehicles, tents or any enclosed area, Greiner said. Coals can reignite several hours after they appear to be cold.
Iowa State University Extension, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Iowa Department of Public Health warn consumers, including hunters and campers, that burning charcoal in enclosed spaces is both a fire and carbon monoxide hazard. Carbon monoxide is especially dangerous because it has no odor and cannot be seen.
Charcoal has some odor when it burns. However, during testing by Iowa State University, the burning charcoal in the storage compartment could not be smelled from the camper bedroom. Burning charcoal produces such large amounts of carbon monoxide that opening a window or using a fan will not assure that carbon monoxide will be reduced to safe levels, Greiner said.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission warns that each year approximately 25 people die and hundreds more suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning when they burn charcoal in enclosed areas such as their homes, in campers or vans, or in tents. Some of the victims die from carbon monoxide poisoning after they burn charcoal in a bedroom or living room for heat or cooking. Some are campers who burn charcoal inside a tent or camper to keep warm. Others are hunters who burn charcoal inside their trucks, cars or vans. Those who do not die can suffer headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, disorientation or collapse. Some people have permanent damage, including memory loss or personality change.
“Everything that burns a fuel–such as electric generators, cars, trucks, motorhomes, fireplaces, cooking appliances, gas refrigerators, water heaters and furnaces–produces carbon monoxide,” Greiner said. “To protect yourself, have equipment serviced yearly by a qualified service contractor, install fire and carbon monoxide detectors in sleeping areas, and NEVER use charcoal to cook or provide heat inside enclosed areas. Carbon monoxide poisoning CAN be prevented.”