Context: Unintentional carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning causes approximately 2100 deaths in the United States per year, but the use of CO detectors could potentially prevent many of these deaths.
Objective: To describe the epidemiology of potentially preventable unintentional CO poisoning deaths in New Mexico.
Design: Descriptive analysis.
Population studied: A total of 136 deaths from CO poisoning investigated by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, 1980 through 1995.
Main outcome measures: Characteristics of deaths from CO poisoning; estimates of the number of deaths potentially preventable with CO detectors.
Results: Of 136 people whose deaths were classified as "unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, not fire related," 49 (36%) most likely were asleep when poisoned. Thirty-nine (49%) of 80 people whose deaths were identified as "residential fatalities" most likely were asleep vs 10 (18%) of 56 of those whose deaths were identified as occurring in or around motor vehicles. A blood-alcohol level greater than 0.01% was present in 56 (42%) of the decedents. Among decedents who had a negative blood-alcohol level (52 in residences and 26 in vehicles), an electronic audible CO detector may have prevented CO poisoning; whereas, among those who had a negative blood-alcohol level and most likely were awake at the time of CO exposure (28 in residences and 23 in vehicles), an electronic detector or a nonaudible, chemical reagent type detector may have prevented CO poisoning.
Conclusion: Differences exist between deaths due to unintentional CO poisoning that occur in residences and those that occur in or around motor vehicles. Carbon monoxide detectors, whether the electronic or chemical reagent types, may have prevented approximately half of these deaths. The high proportion of decedents with alcohol in their blood indicates that effective public health campaigns must address the role of alcohol in CO poisoning deaths.