My heart just about broke while I was watching the news the other night. There was a story about an entire family who perished in their home from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The story stayed with me for days. I could hardly imagine such a devastating tragedy, and it could have been avoided. More than 400 Americans die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year, while 20,000 people go the ER with symptoms — 4,000 of whom end up being hospitalized.

We all have smoke detectors in our homes — at least I hope everyone does — but does everybody have a carbon monoxide detector, as well? This lethal gas is colorless, odorless and is known as a silent killer.

When someone is exposed to excess amounts of carbon monoxide, it builds up in their bloodstream and starts replacing oxygen. This results in serious damage, unconsciousness and even death. There’s no warning and it can overcome you in a relatively short period of time. When you’re asleep, it will not wake you up.

All homes should have carbon monoxide detectors to help protect the residents. Homeowners can usually contact their local fire department, who can check the levels in their home to make sure they are not excessive.

There are many signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. As the cells in your body are being deprived of oxygen, your brain suffers, causing confusion. Not being able to understand what’s going on or how to complete simple tasks may seem like a normal senior moment, but if you are being exposed to carbon monoxide, you could be suffering real damage from the fumes.

Other symptoms can include dizziness, labored breath, dull headaches, nausea and seizures in more severe cases. Our bodies need oxygen everywhere, and when the carbon monoxide replaces it, the body and all of the organs react. If not treated, they will eventually shut down. The eyes demand a lot of oxygen, so when oxygen becomes depleted, vision problems occur. As less oxygen gets moved throughout the body, it becomes harder to breathe.

The best ways to prevent this silent-but-deadly gas is to get a carbon monoxide detector, but they’re not all created equal. It’s important to know what features to look for to ensure you’re choosing the best model to protect your family. Look online and check with Consumer Reports, as well. The brands that seem to pop up more often are Nest, First Alert and Kidde, but do read up on all of them. Check functions and price.

There should be one in each hallway that leads to a bedroom. And be sure to check the batteries each time you check your smoke detectors — at least twice a year. If the alarm sounds, leave the house immediately and call 911 or the fire department. Carbon monoxide detectors are also available for motorhomes and boats. There are several that combine both smoke and carbon monoxide detection.

Prevention includes some common sense, like never running your car inside the garage without the door wide open. Not only is it an immediate carbon monoxide danger in the garage, but it can also leak into your home.

Never use a gas stove or oven to heat your home. Use portable gas camp stoves outdoors only. Fuel-burning space heaters should be monitored, keeping doors or windows open a little to provide fresh air. Never run a generator in an enclosed space, such as the basement or garage.

Ask your utility company about yearly checkups for all gas appliances, including your furnace. Make sure your fireplace is clean and in good repair by having it checked and serviced yearly. When working with chemical solvents at home, use them only outdoors or in well-ventilated areas. Carefully read the instructions and follow the safety precautions on the labels.

One last tip. When traveling, bring a carbon monoxide detector with you. Most hotels have them, but it’s a good precaution to take one with you, just in case. Grandpa always brings ours. That and his nightlight!

Marla Luckhardt is a Brentwood resident who works with senior care and advocacy groups. Email her at