Staying Safe While Staying Warm: Carbon Monoxide Reminders

Brrr — you know it’s cold outside when schools are canceling classes and your Facebook friends are posting pictures of thermometers.

With the arctic-like temperatures outside, families are likely doing everything they can to keep warm – both inside their houses and in their cars. But it’s also a good time to keep in mind the importance of carbon monoxide (CO) safety.

Carbon monoxide is appropriately dubbed the silent killer: it is invisible, odorless, tasteless, and non-irritating. Initial signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include vomiting, dizziness, headache, and confusion, which can be mistaken for the flu. More serious complications are loss of consciousness, nerve damage, permanent disability and even death. Essentially carbon monoxide blocks our body’s ability to absorb oxygen, and thus, has the same effect as suffocation.

Potential sources of CO exposure include furnaces, water heaters, and gasoline-powered equipment like generators, snow blowers and water pumps; gas ranges to heat the entire house; kerosene heaters; and inappropriate use of cooking equipment, such as charcoal grills and camping stoves inside the house.

The most common time of year that carbon monoxide is a concern is in the beginning of fall, when families turn on their furnaces for the first time. The chimney flue should be cleared of obstructions to make sure that carbon monoxide has a clear exit from the house.

But now that we’re in the throes of winter – subzero temperatures no less – there are a couple other carbon monoxide safety measures to keep in mind.

Families might be placing space heaters in bedrooms for extra warmth at night. Please keep in mind that some space heaters contain kerosene, butane or propane, which can emit carbon monoxide. These devices need to be properly maintained to ensure that only a safe amount of carbon monoxide is emitted. If you have the option, an electric space heater is the safer choice.

To ensure the safety of those in your home, it is imperative to have a carbon monoxide detector. The most effective detectors have battery backup in case of power outages and digital peak concentration readouts. For the best prevention, make sure to have a detector at least 15 feet from each bedroom.

Because of the bitter cold, many of us are also letting our cars warm up before driving them. While it’s tempting to let the engine run while it’s still parked in the garage, take the extra step to pull it out before letting the car run while parked. Simply opening the garage door does not create enough ventilation to remove the carbon monoxide that is released from your car’s exhaust.

If you suspect that you or someone in your family is showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, get away from the source of the exposure and contact your Drug and Poison Information Center immediately at 1-800-222-1222.

Stay warm and stay safe!

Sheila Goertemoeller, PharmD, D.ABAT

About the Author: Sheila Goertemoeller, PharmD, D.ABAT

Sheila Goertemoeller PharmD, DABAT, ICPS is a pharmacist and clinical toxicologist with 22 years of experience at the Drug and Poison Information Center Hotline at Cincinnati Children’s.

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