As temperatures drop, carbon monoxide tends to increase. Over the last week alone, six people were found unconscious in a New York home, a mother and her two sons were knocked out cold in Florida and a juvenile prison in Ohio was evacuated.
The Early Show consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen tells the story of a Rochester, Minn., family, two of whose young sons fell victim to carbon monoxide poisoning after they'd lived in a house for only four months.
It was Christmastime, 1995. Cheryl and Todd Burt were celebrating with their three sons: Ryan, Nicholas, and Zachary.
Less than two weeks later, their lives would take a disastrous turn.
"I can't even verbalize the terror," Todd says.
It was a freezing cold night. The furnace was on full blast. Everyone had been feeling under the weather, so the family went to bed early. But in the middle of the night, baby Zach couldn't sleep.
"Each time I came in, he was weaker and weaker," Cheryl recalls. "And I couldn't pick him up to rock him back to sleep, I was that weak. I was that dizzy. I was that sick, and he couldn't hold his bottle, and had I not been so poisoned, I would have known that something was very, very wrong."
Cheryl and her family were being poisoned by high levels of carbon monoxide. They all eventually passed out. It wasn't until one the next afternoon that Todd woke up - to a silent house.
"That's when I went up to check on my children," Todd says. "I went up the stairs, and the first thing I did was check on the baby. When I picked him up, he was dead. And that's when the shock hit me, I was like, 'Oh my god, what's going on here?'"
Todd also found his middle son, Nicholas, had slipped away.
Todd says, "It was like a domino thing, first one dead, second one dead, and when I got to my third child Ryan, the oldest, his eyes were open."
"That's when I called 911," Todd says.
Here is how the call went:
Operator: "911 emergency"
Todd: "Hi, I need some help."
Operator: "What's the problem sir?"
Todd: "I think I have, I got two, two boys in bed, in bed that are dead."
Operator: "Could it be possibly be carbon monoxide poisoning?"
Todd: "I don't have..."
Operator: "We'll get them right out; we'll get the ambulance and rescue right out there."
Todd, Cheryl, and five-year-old Ryan made it out alive, but the carbon monoxide coming from their faulty furnace had taken the lives of 4-year-old Nicholas and 16-month-old Zachary.
Cheryl says, "And that's what you remember for the rest of your life, that you were unable to help them because you were so poisoned. I live with that."
Every year, thousands of people are accidentally poisoned by carbon monoxide. Hundreds die. It's called the silent killer.
Ken Giles of the Consumer Product Safety Commission points out, "Carbon monoxide is dangerous because you can't see it; you can't smell it; you can't taste it."
Giles says carbon monoxide can leak into your home from any fuel-burning appliance, such as your furnace or water heater. That's why it's so important to get them inspected on an annual basis.
Giles notes, "There have been cases where people have turned on the furnace for the first time in the heating season and nobody in the family woke up because carbon monoxide spread through the house."
Other sources of carbon monoxide?
Your fireplace: Giles says you should get your chimney cleaned and inspected regularly. Also, never use a charcoal grill or generator anywhere inside your home.
Adds Giles, "Gasoline generators produce a lot of carbon monoxide; they must never be used in the basement or in an attached garage or porch."
Although it's invisible, carbon monoxide does produce warning signs of potential poisoning. Symptoms mimic the flu: headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
Giles says the best defense is a carbon monoxide alarm. The CPSC recommends putting one outside every sleeping area in your home.
If you hear that alarm go off or if you think there's a problem in your house, and you think there's carbon monoxide present, "The first thing to do is call 911, and get out of the house," Giles advises.
Just before Christmas, Cheryl had thought about buying a carbon monoxide alarm. Instead, she used the money to buy her son Nicholas a toy truck.
Cheryl says, "We didn't buy a carbon monoxide detector; we didn't have one up; we could have; we should have."
Cheryl points out still has that truck, but she doesn't have her sons.
Todd says, "We don't want this to happen to anybody else, and maybe by us sharing our story, we can prevent that from happening."
Cheryl and Todd are no longer married, but they continue to work together to get the word out about carbon monoxide poisoning and the need for alarms in homes.