Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning death in the country, yet less than 40 percent of homes have a detector that can detect its tasteless and odorless fumes, said Lt. Nick Craig of the Green Bay Fire Department.

That’s the word the department is spreading in response to a new state law requiring new multifamily dwellings to have carbon monoxide detectors. Those new dwellings include apartment buildings, dormitories, condominiums and hotels, which have fuel-burning appliances.

The law went into effect Wednesday, the same day the Green Bay Fire Department announced its participation in First Alert’s home safety campaign.

The company, which sells home safety products, will distribute 600 carbon monoxide detectors throughout the state. The Green Bay Fire Department will distribute 50 to residents who may not be able to afford them.

“It’s our goal today to get out the message that carbon monoxide detectors are as equally important as smoke detectors,” Craig said.

Craig said carbon monoxide poisoning claims more than 500 lives and hospitalizes about 15,000 people each year.

Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, said the bill was created after an elderly couple died from carbon monoxide poisoning during a trip in the northwestern part of the state. The couple turned on the heat in their cabin.

Green Bay Fire Chief Jeff Roemer said the focus on multifamily dwellings may be because there is no “inspection power” in single-family homes. The homeowner must give permission for the inspection. Roemer said the department routinely checks multifamily homes and business occupancies.

Capt. Chris Heil said by April 1, 2010, all multifamily buildings will be required to have detectors. The code requires that alarms be installed in basements within 15 feet of each sleeping area.

Carbon monoxide is a by-product of incomplete combustion produced when fossil fuels like oil, gas or coal burn. Symptoms of its exposure include nausea, dizzy spells, fatigue and vomiting, the department said.

Heil said carbon monoxide detectors can cost between $25 and $50.