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Quiet Death, Cherry Red


A silent killer lurks within the house. During the winter months, frequent storms cause downed power lines while high snows present danger in unsuspecting ways.



A colorless, odorless gas permeates the home, and unwary inhabitants are at risk. Initially, they feel tired, have a headache, and become a little nauseous. The dog may be unusually quiet, and the cat, curled in a ball in her basket, is unwilling to play. Later, family members become dizzy, and the headache worsens. Finally, as the snow muffles the sounds of the outside world, they all silently slip into unconsciousness, respiratory failure, and death.


This scene describes carbon monoxide poisoning. Snow drifts can block the exhaust vents from furnaces and prevent the oil burner from getting enough oxygen. Insufficient oxygen results in incomplete combustion, and that produces carbon monoxide—CO, a toxic gas. Car tailpipes, also blocked by snow, can cause CO to accumulate within the car while it’s parked with the engine running. Most commonly, home generators kept in an enclosed garage or porch can produce deadly CO gas in the household.


We associate the cherry red color of the body (skin, nails, mucous membranes) with CO poisoning. Carbon monoxide has a higher affinity (~200-250 times higher!) for hemoglobin than oxygen, reducing the availability of oxygen to the body’s tissues. Without sufficient oxygen, organ systems most susceptible to this chemical hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) are the central nervous and cardiovascular systems.


Safe practices using generators in outdoor spaces and removing snow from furnace and car vents are warranted. And don’t forget to change the batteries in the carbon monoxide detectors throughout your home—it’s like a breath of fresh air.

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