An Important Reminder About Cold Weather and Carbon Monoxide

Cardinal-414341The warmest it’s supposed to get in my neck of the woods this coming week is 30°F. Not even above freezing! Cold weather like this increases the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning because people are more apt to use space heaters for extra warmth.

Anything that burns fuel can be a source of carbon monoxide. The gas is produced when the fuel is not completely combusted, which can happen if an item or appliance is poorly maintained or not used or vented properly.

Just a week ago, a faulty furnace sent seven people staying at a motel in Ogunquit to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning. As reported by Bangor Daily News, when several guests complained of flu-like symptoms, including headaches, nausea, dizziness and vomiting, the fire department was called. A gas monitor showed carbon monoxide levels over 300 parts per million. Anything over 35 ppm is high. Those people were lucky they didn’t die — there were no carbon monoxide detectors in the building.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, on average, about 170 people in the United States die every year from carbon monoxide produced by non-automotive consumer products.

Carbon monoxide sources

  • Generators
  • Furnaces
  • Wood stoves
  • Kerosene heaters
  • Gas-powered tools
  • Gas-powered home appliances
  • Gar and charcoal grills
  • Cars, trucks and other vehicles

How to lessen your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning

(Courtesy Maine CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency)

  • Place generators outdoors. Never put one in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space, such as basement, cellar bulkhead or attached garage.

you change your clock for daylight savings time.

  • NEVER ignore a carbon monoxide alarm.
  • Check and clean your chimney at least once a year.
  • Don’t idle the car, snowmobile or any other vehicle in a garage, even if a door to the outside is open. Fumes can
    build up very quickly in the garage and living area of your home.
  • Do not use pressure washers, chainsaws and any other gas-powered tool inside the house, garage or an enclosed area, such as a barn or shed.
  • Have fuel-burning appliances, including oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas or kerosene space heaters, fireplaces, and wood stoves, inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season.
  • Make certain that flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition, and not blocked.
  • Choose appliances that vent their fumes to the outside whenever possible, have them properly installed, and maintain them according to manufacturers’ instructions.

The problem with carbon monoxide is that it’s a gas that you can’t see, smell or taste. Early symptoms of CO poisoning can feel just like the flu, only without a fever. It doesn’t take long for the situation to become serious — for someone who has been poisoned to lose consciousness and possibly die.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death

What to do if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning

If you or someone you are caring for has any of these symptoms and you suspect CO poisoning, you should:

  • Get out of the building immediately.
  • Call the local fire department or 911.
  • Get medical attention. Call your physician or the Northern New England Poison Center (800-222-1222).
  • Do not go back into the building until you know for certain that the CO levels are safe.

Treating carbon monoxide poisoning

Treatment involves reducing carbon monoxide levels in the blood.

  • Breathing pure oxygen through a mask or a ventilator if you can’t breathe on your own.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be used in severe cases or for pregnant women because unborn babies are very susceptible to the effects of carbon monoxide.

Most people who are treated right away recover within a few days. Some long-term problems can occur so be sure to watch for changes in vision, coordination or behavior.

An ounce of prevention

Of course, the best treatment is prevention, so be sure to go over the list of things you can do to reduce your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Be aware of elderly relatives or friends who are still living in their own homes, especially if you have noticed any worrisome signs that they may need extra help.

To help you remember what you should know about carbon monoxide, print this flyer from the CDC and put it where you can see it. Stay warm and safe. Winter is almost over. I hope.

CDC Flyer carbon monoxide

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.