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Carbon monoxide, a cold weather threat

Posted on Monday, February 3, 2014 at 12:19 pm

To keep warm air in and cold air out in winter months, most of us strive to keep every door and window tightly closed. While that may help reduce heating bills, it may also increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Each year we see emergency room visits and tragic deaths from carbon monoxide that can be prevented with greater awareness and actions to avoid these manageable risks,” said Stephen May, MD, medical director for the TDH Emergency Preparedness Program.

“While carbon monoxide poisoning is a year-round threat, it’s more common in cold weather when people are seeking ways to keep warm by using space heaters inside.”

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas that causes more than 400 deaths and 20,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. each year. It is found in combustion fumes produced by small gasoline engines, stoves, generators, lanterns and gas ranges or by burning charcoal or wood in a fireplace. Carbon monoxide from these sources can build up in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces and people and animals in these spaces can be poisoned and can die from breathing the gas.

The first symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion and they are often mistaken for common winter illnesses such as severe colds and flu. Over time, exposure to carbon monoxide can cause brain damage and death.

The best way to protect yourself and your family from carbon monoxide poisoning is to install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector on every level of your home. These work very much like smoke detectors, giving a loud beep or other signal when carbon monoxide is detected. The inexpensive devices are available at most hardware stores.

Other ways to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning include having your chimney inspected each year by a qualified person to make sure it is not blocked and that it ventilates properly; never using a gas range, cook top or oven to heat a home; never using a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern or portable camping stove inside a home, tent or camper; never running a generator, pressure washer or any gasoline-powered engine inside a garage, basement, crawlspace or other enclosed structure, even if the doors and windows are open; never leaving the engine running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage.

“Take the appropriate precautions and if you develop any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, seek immediate emergency medical care,” said TDH Environmental Epidemiology Director Craig shepherd, MPH, REHS/RS, DAAS. “The sooner you seek treatment, the better your chances for avoiding permanent or long-term health complications. If you don’t have a carbon monoxide detector in your home, it’s important to   get one now. For the few pennies a day they cost, they’re an important way to save lives.”