Carbon Monoxide: Cold Weather Safety Tips

an elderly man scrapes ice off of the windshield of a car after an ice stormWe’re barely into winter and Maine has already experienced an ice storm that so far, has left more than 100, 000 people 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 Environmental Protection Agency)

  • Place generators outdoors. Never put one in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space, such as basement, cellar bulkhead or attached garage.
  • Keep generator dry and protected from ice and snow. Dry your hands before touching a generator.
  • 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, by either keeping 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, such as gas or charcoal grills or gas camp stoves, indoors — not even in a fireplace.
  • Do not use indoor gas cooking stoves for heat.
  • Keep chimney flue and a window open when you burn decorative gas fireplace logs for heat.
  • Place a carbon monoxide detector that is battery powered or has battery back up 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 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 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 Happy Holidays from Advantage Home Care!

Our Aging in Place blog is written by Diane Atwood, who also writes the blogs Catching Health with Diane Atwood and 



Categories: Blog and Healthy Living, Safety and Fitness.

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