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CO poisoning: Is my car’s exhaust system dangerous?

by | Aug 8, 2019 | Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Hiding beneath our vehicles, our exhaust systems keep a low profile, but they are extremely important. They funnel away the dangerous gases produced during engine combustion. A broken exhaust system poses extreme danger because it releases carbon monoxide (CO) – an odorless, tasteless, highly toxic gas – which can travel into the passenger area and cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Why should you care? CO poisoning can be debilitating or even deadly.

Normally, the CO created in the engine travels with the other combustion byproducts to a device called the catalytic converter, which filters out most pollutant emissions and converts the deadly CO into the nontoxic CO2. The tailpipe then expels the filtered exhaust away from the vehicle so it can dissipate outside.

Different things can disrupt this proper function, however. For example, a leaky exhaust system can cause unfiltered engine byproducts to enter the vehicle. OSHA considers 100 ppm immediately dangerous to life and health, but broken exhaust systems can leak more than that into an occuped vehicle. An exhaust system without a catalytic converter releases CO emissions ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 ppm, increasing the amount of pollutants in tailpipe emissions and making exhaust leaks that much more dangerous.

Fortunately, preventing CO poisoning from exhaust systems is very straightforward. Here’s what you need to do to stay safe:

  • Get your exhaust system serviced annually. Exhaust leaks that occur before the catalytic converter release tremendous amounts of unfiltered CO, which can enter the car through an open window, door, trunk, or hole in the floor.
  • Get your exhaust system serviced even after “harmless” fender-bender accidents. Even minor accidents can damage crucial exhaust components and endanger passengers.
  • Get your engine tuned up annually. Misfiring and untuned engines produce exponentially more CO than a tuned engine.
  • Beware that CO-filtering catalytic converters attract thieves. Catalytic converters contain precious metals and can be stolen from vehicles with high ground clearance if the thief brings the right tools.
  • Heed any “check engine” lights. Your engine already produces confined explosions and releases some poisonous gases on a good day: malfunctions potentially threaten your safety.
  • Beware of engines in older cars, classic cars, rusty cars, or cars that have fallen into disrepair. They can be compromised by age, rust, corrosion, or lack of a catalytic converter.
  • Never run or warm up your car in the garage, even with the garage door open. Lethal levels of CO accumulate rapidly, even from vehicles with a catalytic converter.
  • Never run your car with the tailpipe blocked. People stranded in snowstorms running their cars for warmth sometimes get CO poisoning when snow buildup blocks the tailpipe and prevents exhaust from exiting.
  • Remember that highways generally have higher CO levels, so know the symptoms if you are high-risk. Pull off the highway and get to fresh air if you start feeling headache, fatigue, chest pain, or other symptoms of CO poisoning. High-risk groups present symptoms at lower levels of CO, even ambient highway levels.
  • Keep a portable CO detector in your car and immediately pull over and get out of the car to fresh air if it goes off. Since CO is undetectable without instrument, keeping a CO-reading instrument with you can save your life.

Nearly all CO poisonings are preventable. Learn more about CO poisoning and remain vigilant to stay safe!

Have you been injured or has your loved one been killed by CO poisoning? Know that you may have legal recourse.

At the Wyatt Law Firm, we care about the victims of unjust CO poisoning. Furthermore, we don’t let them walk away from their incidents empty-handed.

Call us today at 210-340-5550 for a free case review, or submit a confidential contact form via our website.

Let us tell your story. Let us fight for you.

For more information on CO poisoning, explore our legal blog. Check out our website to see our full list of practice areas.


Greiner, T. H., Ph.D., P.E. (n.d.). Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Vehicles (AEN-208). Retrieved August 8, 2019, from https://www.abe.iastate.edu/extension-and-outreach/carbon-monoxide-poisoning-vehicles-aen-208/

Laukkonen, J. (2018, November 20). Here’s How to Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Your Car. Retrieved August 8, 2019, from https://www.lifewire.com/avoid-carbon-monoxide-poisoning-in-car-4134877

Libretexts. (2019, June 05). Catalytic Converters. Retrieved August 8, 2019, from https://chem.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Physical_and_Theoretical_Chemistry_Textbook_Maps/Supplemental_Modules_(Physical_and_Theoretical_Chemistry)/Kinetics/Case_Studies:_Kinetics/Catalytic_Converters

Schreter, R. E. (2008). Formation and Movement of Carbon Monoxide into Mobile Homes, Recreational Vehicles, and Other Enclosures (D. G. Penney, Ed.). In Carbon Monoxide Poisoning(pp. 57-97). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group.