The Today Show had a segment this morning on the importance of keeping up-to-date carbon monoxide detectors in your home. As you would expect, the story began with the tale of a family who almost died due to carbon monoxide ... luckily they realized something was wrong and called 911 when they all came down with the same dramatic symptoms at the same time.
I don't want to minimize the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. Obviously, having a detector in your home is not a bad idea. And it's a terrible, avoidable tragedy if anyone dies by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
I'd just like to point out—I can't remember the last time I saw a major news show do a segment on the importance of keeping smoke detectors up-to-date. And according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, every year, accidental carbon monoxide poisoning kills 170 people, on average. In contrast, in 2006, fire claimed the lives of 2,580 people—that according to the Center for Disease Control.
This all reminds me of Amanda Ripley's book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, which I blogged about earlier this year. She came up with an equation about what elicits fear:
Dread = Uncontrollability + Unfamiliarity + Imaginability + Suffering + Scale of Destruction + Unfairness
Both fire and carbon monoxide poisoning rank fairly high on this scale, but the carbon monoxide poisoning is especially potent. If you watch the NBC clip, you can imagine being the family, sleeping at home, and not even knowing a "silent killer" is attacking. The scale of destruction is low, but the suffering is high, it's unfamiliar to many of us, and it's certainly uncontrollable in many ways—that sense heightened by the fact that carbon monoxide is tasteless, odorless, and invisible. And with something like a poisonous gas that randomly seeps into the air, fairness doesn't even come into play. It gets pretty high marks on the fear scale.
What? A TV show using fear to hook in viewers? You're shocked, I know.
Anyway, get a carbon monoxide detector if you want. But if you're concerned about utility, check your smoke detector batteries first.