On a cool Wednesday in March this year, a couple was enjoying their RV at a KOA campground in Nashville. Their bodies were discovered by family members who traveled to Nashville to check on the couple after they were unable to reach them for several days.
One of the propane-gas stove burners had been left on accidentally, police said, filling the air with carbon monoxide. The RV had a carbon monoxide detector, but, it had no batteries. The couple had been living at the campground for about six months, according to WRCB-TV.
Every year on average, over 400 people die in the United States of carbon monoxide poisoning that’s not fire-related. Thousands more are treated and sometimes hospitalized.
The Columbia (Missouri) Tribune reports that carbon monoxide poisoning is to blame in the death of a couple in rural Pike County. They were found in a small camper where they had been living. The coroner concluded that a propane space heater in the camper likely caused carbon monoxide poisoning.
Usually, we think of this as a winter issue. That’s when gas-producing generators and fireplaces generally get fired up. But in northern areas where summertime camping is popular, carbon monoxide remains a concern in all seasons.
Carbon monoxide is produced when you burn any one of various fuels, including wood, charcoal, kerosene, stove oil, and propane. Camping stoves and grills are sources. So are internal combustion engines, like those in generators.
One of the things that makes carbon monoxide so dangerous is it has no odor or color. Your only clues that you’re being poisoned may be general symptoms easily attributed to another problem. Or, if you’re asleep or intoxicated, you may not detect the poisoning at all.
So it’s important to prevent carbon monoxide from becoming an issue in the first place. Fortunately, there are good ways to do that:
Use portable generators outside only. Place far away from windows, doors, and vents. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 20 feet.) Point the exhaust away from your RV, tent, or house.
Never use a stove or grill to heat your tent, camper, or house. Even a warm, unlit grill is dangerous; warm coals continue producing carbon monoxide. The grill lid doesn’t protect you. Instead, for camping, remember to pack plenty of blankets and coats.
Grill in open air only, not even in a garage.
Don’t use a portable lantern when sleeping in a tent or RV. Bring flashlights and extra batteries instead.
Ensure you have a working carbon monoxide detector. Test it monthly, and change the batteries every six months.
Don’t ride or let your children ride in the bed of a covered pickup truck, such as one with a camper shell. Exhaust fumes can gather in there.
Inspect the RV for openings in the floor and sidewalls (seal any holes with silicone adhesive or have it repaired before using your generator again). Inspect windows, door seals, and weather strips for effective seal.
Yellow flames in propane-burning appliances (coach heaters, stoves, ovens, water heaters, etc.) indicate a lack of oxygen—determine the cause and correct it immediately.
Inspect the RV chassis and generator exhaust system regularly to ensure they are working properly. “Inspect for exhaust leaks at every startup and after every eight hours of running,” recommends Keystone RV Company in a carbon monoxide fact sheet. Here are a few more of their tips:
Don’t use exhaust fans when the generator’s running. They could cause carbon monoxide to be sucked into the RV.
Fully open or close slide-outs for a proper seal.
Know that parking in a confined space can reduce airflow around the RV and cause carbon monoxide to build up. Even in the woods, if there’s a lot of natural covering, carbon monoxide can hover there rather than disperse. High humidity can also create a covering.
Be aware that shifting winds can cause exhaust to blow away from the coach at one moment, but under the coach in the next moment.
Nearby RVs and vehicles can affect you too. In 2008 in Indianapolis, one man died in his RV from carbon monoxide poisoning and three of his family members were hospitalized, but the family hadn’t been using a generator. Police believe their air conditioner may have pulled in carbon monoxide from the RV parked close to them.
Remember, safety is no accident.