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Protect Against Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in the Cold

February 12, 2015

There are two things you can say for sure about this winter, the snow has been plentiful and the temperatures frigid.

As people look for alternative ways to keep warm, there is an accompanying risk for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning as they turn to gasoline powered generators, portable stoves, space heaters and other products to try to keep warm.

"In emergency situations like a Nor'easter when the power goes out, or a stretch of freezing cold temperatures when you want to supplement your main heating source, you shouldn’t be running gas grills or generators meant for outdoor use in your home or garage, where ventilation is poor or non-existent," said Dr. Ronald Gross, chief, Trauma, Acute Care Surgery, and Surgical Critical Care.

The silent killer

CO, often referred to as the "silent killer," is the number one cause of poisoning deaths in the U.S. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 500 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning each year.

Carbon monoxide, found in combustion fumes, is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death. Sources of carbon monoxide in the home include malfunctioning furnaces, water heaters, ovens, stoves, gas-fired dryers, clogged chimneys, corroded flue pipes, and unvented space heaters. Automobiles left running in attached garages also pose a hazard, even if the garage doors are open.  CO from these combustion fumes can build up in places that don’t have a good flow of fresh air, resulting in the poisoning of both humans and animals. Carbon monoxide cuts off oxygen to the brain and heart, risking death and neurological damage.

Symptoms of CO Poisoning

Common symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, fatigue, nausea and dizziness, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.

"CO poisoning can sometimes be difficult to diagnose because symptoms often mimic other illnesses. The tragedy is that you can die while sleeping or even before having any symptoms. Even low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning, if not detected soon enough, can result in long-term health problems," Dr. Gross said.

Infants and children are especially vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning, because they have higher metabolic rates and the gas accumulates in their bodies faster than in adults. Unborn babies have an even higher risk of birth defects, neurological disorders and death when the mother is exposed to carbon monoxide.

Quick Tips

The Western Mass. Safe Kids Coalition headquartered at Baystate Children’s Hospital offers the following tips to protect you against CO poisoning:

  • Have all gas, oil or coal burning appliances inspect by a technician every year to ensure they are working correctly and are properly vented.
  • Never use a stove for heating.
  • Do not use a grill, generator or camping stove inside your home, garage or near a window.
  • Never leave a car, SUV, or motorcycle engine running inside a garage, even if the garage door is open.
  • Install a CO alarm outside every sleeping area and on every level of your home.
  • Place CO alarms at least 15 feet away from every fuel-burning appliance to reduce the number of nuisance alarms. Test alarms every month and replace them every 5 years.
  • Make sure alarms can be heard when you test them and practice an escape plan with your entire family.

If your CO alarm goes off, Safe Kids recommends:

  • Getting everyone out of the house as quickly as possible into fresh air. Then call for help from a neighbor’s home or a cell phone outside of your home.
  • If someone experiences CO poisoning symptoms, call 911 for medical attention.
  • If no one is experiencing symptoms, call the fire department. They will let you know when it is safe to re-enter your home.