After arriving at JFK with plenty of time to relax at the airport lounge before our flight to Bali last November, I started to rattle off a list to my sister of things I hoped I didn’t forget at home. Passport: Obviously I had that, since we’d already made it through security. Sun hats: check. Dramamine for the ferry to the Indonesian island of Gili Trawangan: check.
“There’s one thing I didn’t have time to order, but I really wish we had,” my sister responded nervously. I already knew what she was talking about: One week earlier, three Americans had died of carbon monoxide poisoning at an Airbnb in Mexico City. I tapped my carry-on confidently and mentioned that I’d been traveling with a small plug-in carbon monoxide detector for a few months already. Our mom, worried about my frequent travel habits, mailed me one when she read about a different carbon monoxide incident at the Sandals resort on Grand Exuma Island in the Bahamas in May 2022.
More recently, on June 13, two other Americans died at Hyatt’s Rancho Pescadero resort in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Autopsies suggest they died of “intoxication by an undetermined substance,” according to the Associated Press. The hotel is currently closed for an “extensive independent investigation of the incident, led by a third party,” a Hyatt spokesperson told ABC News, and will not reopen until the investigation is complete. Even though their official cause of death has yet to be determined, I’m going to keep packing my detector if there’s a remote chance it could’ve been caused by carbon monoxide.
The “invisible killer”
“Carbon monoxide, also known as CO, is called the ‘invisible killer’ because it’s a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas,” according to the U.S. Fire Administration, an entity of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It is undetectable to the human senses, so people may not know that they are being exposed.”
Carbon monoxide poisoning usually occurs when a fuel-burning appliance—like a furnace, gas range, water heater, or room heater—is broken or not vented properly. It can also be caused by fireplaces and portable generators, or by charcoal being burned in enclosed spaces. On average, about 170 people in the United States die each year from carbon monoxide produced by such non-automotive consumer products, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
While the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) encourages its members to include CO detectors in hotel rooms and spaces with fuel-fired appliances, hotels are only required to follow applicable state and local fire, mechanical code, and CO detection requirements. Although many states require carbon monoxide detectors to be installed in private residences, not all hotels are required to have such safeguards in place, according to Kris Hauschildt, the founder of the Jenkins Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks carbon monoxide incidents in U.S. hotels and motels.
“There is unfortunately no way to tell which hotels have CO detection in place nor which ones are required to have it installed either via regulation or via individual hotel brand requirements,” Hauschildt told AFAR. Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, it’s best to ask hotels and rental owners directly if they have CO detectors.
According to the database kept by the Jenkins Foundation, there have been 2,505 injuries and 166 deaths from carbon monoxide incidents in U.S. hotels and motels reported in the media between 1967 and today. However, Hauschildt pointed out that a December 2021 report comparing National Fire Incident Reporting System data to media reports highlights the fact that the public only hears about a small fraction of the CO incidents occurring in U.S. hotels in the news.
“Few hotel guest rooms have fuel-fired appliances capable of producing carbon monoxide,” a spokesperson from the AHLA told AFAR. But of the reported cases, some of these were caused by boilers and heaters used to heat pools and water, gas dryers, and fireplaces. “There is no way to tell what CO sources may be present in a hotel as gas-fired appliances are usually kept out of sight in utility/maintenance rooms,” Hauschildt said. “In addition, there are also portable sources of CO that have caused harm to both guests and employees of hotels, including gas-powered tools (pressure washers, power tools), generators, and vehicles left running in underground parking garages.”
And while both Airbnb and VRBO encourage hosts to install carbon monoxide detectors in sleeping areas of their vacation homes, it is not required. (Airbnb does offer hosts free detectors, and the amenities section of each listing notes whether or not it has one.)
In July 2021, Congresswoman Angie Craig of the second district of Minnesota (which includes the southern part of the Twin Cities) introduced the Safe Stay Act to the House, which requires places of public accommodation to install compliant carbon monoxide detectors within each sleeping or dwelling unit. It was referred to the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce but has made no movement since. Representative Craig’s team did not respond to requests for comment about if there are plans to reintroduce this bill.
Protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning while traveling
When booking a hotel or a vacation rental, ask whether or not the property has carbon monoxide detectors installed in its bedrooms—never assume it does. (As mentioned previously, each Airbnb listing says if it has one or not.)
To be safe, pack your own travel carbon monoxide detector. Look for plug-in models that have battery backup (and don’t forget to pack your plug adapter if you’re traveling abroad). It’s also important to make sure the detector has the UL 2034 mark on its packaging, verifying it meets the safety standard for carbon monoxide alarms in the United States.
I personally use the Kidde Carbon Monoxide Detector, which is about the size of a (very thick) iPhone, so it doesn’t take up too much space in my carry-on. It usually retails for $30 on Amazon. This one emits four beeps in quick succession when it detects CO, while others may have verbal alerts. (A smoke alarm will sound different; it might have a three-beep pattern, for example.) I leave mine plugged into the wall near where I pack my luggage each time I travel, so I never forget to throw it in at the last minute.
Airlines allow these detectors in both carry-on and checked bags, but see if you have to remove the batteries when checking your bag. (TSA allows non-lithium dry batteries in the most common sizes like AA, AAA, etc. but restricts lithium ion and lithium metal batteries from being checked due to fire safety concerns.)
Of course, it’s also very important to know what the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are, especially since they can be confused with flu symptoms. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, CO poisoning symptoms include, “headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, sleepiness, and confusion.” If you suspect you’ve been exposed, go outside immediately to get fresh air and call 911—or whatever the local emergency line is, if you’re abroad.