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Carbon monoxide - the underestimated hazard

46/2019, 22.11.2019

According to a survey conducted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), many know too little about the causes and consequences of poisoning by the odourless gas

Carbon monoxide (CO) can cause poisoning. While the risk is well known to many consumers, situations are often misjudged. The BfR has surveyed more than 1,000 consumers in Germany by telephone regarding their awareness and perception of knowledge about and prevention behaviour in connection with the risk of poisoning, in particular by CO. "More than one third of those surveyed mistakenly believe that carbon monoxide can be detected by smell, smoke or the alarm of a smoke detector," says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Therefore, more clarification is needed regarding the risks."

Link to the survey

The survey investigated how poisoning risks are perceived. The goal is to improve understanding of poisoning risks. The survey showed that more than three quarters of respondents were aware of alcohol, carbon monoxide and fungal poisoning. However, less than one third had heard of cases of poisoning with lamp oils, the liquids in e-cigarettes or with food supplements. More people with children under the age of 14 reported to have heard of cases of poisoning related to alcohol, fungi, drugs, plant protection products, medicines, detergents and cleaning products, or liquid laundry detergent capsules.

More than four fifths of respondents were aware of cases of poisoning involving carbon monoxide. Less than half rated the risk of unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning as high or very high. The vast majority said they knew about most symptoms, such as headache, dizziness or nausea. More than one third falsely believed that carbon monoxide could be detected by smell, grey-black smoke or the alarm issued by a smoke detector. There was little awareness of preventive and protective measures such as the installation of a CO detector, regular inspections of heating systems, tiled stoves and fireplaces by chimney sweeps or continuous ventilation of wood pellet storage rooms. Also little known was the necessity of measuring CO concentrations in cafes where water pipes, also known as shisha pipes, are offered.

The survey demonstrates that communication measures should address risks that are important for children and less well known, in order to increase hazard awareness. Many people are already sensitised to the health risks associated with carbon monoxide poisoning. However, knowledge about the properties of the gas and about specific protection and prevention measures is lacking. In particular, people who use or own a water pipe or a wood pellet heater were insufficiently aware of the risks associated with their equipment.

From 19 February 2019 to 8 March 2019, the BfR surveyed over 1,000 respondents in Germany aged 14 and over by telephone. The survey contained 17 questions. It assessed the awareness of cases of poisoning related to different substances, foods or products and asked respondents to estimate the risk of accidental poisoning. In addition, the active search for information, the sources of information used and the awareness and use of specific information on poisoning risks were assessed. The second part of the survey consisted of in-depth questions about carbon monoxide.

The results of the survey pertaining to awareness and perception of, knowledge about and prevention measures in connection with CO have been summarised by the BfR in a booklet. PDF-File (702.0 KB)

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.


Publications - Brochures

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Health Risks of Carbon Monoxide 702.0 KB


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