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Carbon Monoxide: Cold Weather Safety Tips

In winter’s past Maine has experienced winter storms that have left thousands without power. No power means many have probably either hooked up a portable generator or have one that automatically goes on when the power goes off. It’s so important to make sure a generator is used and vented properly to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

After the infamous ice storm of 1998, one study showed that when a gasoline generator is improperly placed, such as in a basement or a garage, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning could increase as much as 300-fold. According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC), “When the power went out for several days after Tropical Storm Irene in August of 2011, carbon monoxide poisoning was the cause of two deaths and four non-fatal poisonings in Maine. In each case, the carbon monoxide came from improper use of generators.”

Generators aren’t the only source of carbon monoxide. Anything that burns fuel can be a source. 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.

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 EPA)

  • Place generators outdoors. Never put one in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space, like the basement, cellar bulkhead, or garage.
  • Keep the generator dry and protected from ice and snow. Dry your hands before touching it.
  • Make sure the generator is at least 15 feet away from windows or doors into the home.
  • Use kerosene heaters in a well-ventilated room. Keep the doors to other rooms open or opening a window at least 1-inch.
  • Only use K-1 grade fuel in a kerosene heater. Follow instructions for setting the wick height.
  • Do not use outdoor cooking devices, like gas or charcoal grills or camp stoves, indoors.
  • Do not use indoor gas cooking stoves for heat.
  • Keep chimney flue and a window open when you burn gas fireplace logs for heat.
  • Place a carbon monoxide detector that’s battery-powered or has a battery backup power outside each sleeping area. Look for the UL mark with the “Single Station Carbon Monoxide Alarm” statement.
  • Change the batteries in your carbon monoxide detector each time you change your clock for daylight savings time.
  • NEVER ignore carbon monoxide alarms.
  • Check and clean your chimney at least once a year.
  • Don’t idle the car, snowmobile, or any vehicle in a garage, even if a door is open. Fumes can build up quickly in your home.
  • Do not use pressure washers, chainsaws, and any other gas-powered tool inside the house, garage, or any enclosed area.
  • 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 fumes to the outside, have them properly installed, and maintain them according to manufacturers’ instructions.

A colorless, odorless gas

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 please be sure to go over the list of things you can do to reduce the 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. Advantage Home Care is also available to help care for or check on your elderly loved ones as well, so please don’t hesitate to contact us about our services.

Stay warm and safe this winter and always remember, Advantage Home Care is here to help!

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