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Marine Patrol

Carbon Monoxide - the silent killer

Several times in the last few years we have witnessed carbon monoxide poisoning in fishermen on Lake Pend Oreille. Early this season we came close to a real tragedy on Priest Lake when two boaters crashed into a parked sailboat and later had no recollection of the incident. Both occupants were suffering from near lethal exposure to CO poisoning.

CO is called the silent killer because it is invisible, odorless tasteless gas that is produced when a carbon-based fuel burns. CO can make you sick in seconds. In high enough concentrations, even a few breaths can be fatal. CO sources may include gasoline engines, generators, cooking ranges and heaters.
CO kills by suffocation, replacing oxygen in the bloodstream. Many fatalities around boats that were attributed to drowning are now suspected to be caused by CO poisoning. A recent study of 25 drowning accidents on Lake Powell revealed that 12 (48 percent) of those deaths were actually caused by CO poisoning.

Early symptoms of CO poisoning include irritated eyes, headaches, nausea, weakness and dizziness. Often symptoms are confused with seasickness or intoxication. Move anyone with these symptoms to fresh air immediately and seek medical assistance unless you a certain the cause is not CO.

To protect yourself and others while boating allow fresh air to circulate through the boat at all times, even during bad weather. Ventilate immediately if exhaust fumes are detected in the boat. Never allow anyone to sit on the back deck, “teak surf,” or hang on the swim platform while the engines are running. Never enter areas under swim platforms where exhaust outlets are located—even for a second. One or two breaths in this area could be fatal.

Also, towing someone behind a boat within 15 feet at a very low speed can be dangerous. Install and maintain marine type CO detectors in the cabin of your vessel, and inspect the exhaust system to ensure proper operation. CO poisoning can be caused by blocked exhaust outlets, another vessel alongside or slow speed or idling. It can also occur from a “station wagon effect” created when the vessel is operation at a high bow angle. A following wind can induce exhaust into the cockpit and is extremely dangerous—especially for fishermen trolling at very slow speeds.


Public awareness of the dangers of CO poisoning, especially around boats where the threat is often overlooked, is the best defense against this “silent killer.” Beware!


Happy and Safe Boating!

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Author info

Cary Kelly Cary Kelly Cary Kelly is a Lieutenant with the Bonner County Sheriff's Office Marine Deputy division

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