One of Winter's Hidden Hazards - Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

This winter has presented much of the country with a number of challenges.  One often overlooked hazard is the risk of Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning.  With so many regions experiencing power failures, families often look for alternative sources to heat their homes and prepare food, unknowingly risking the lives of their family members and pets. 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death if inhaled.  Every year, more than 400 people die in the U. S. from accidental CO poisoning. CO is found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by small gasoline engines, stoves, generators, lanterns, and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal and wood. CO from these sources can build up in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces. People and animals in these spaces can be poisoned and can die from breathing CO.

How to Recognize CO Poisoning

Exposure to CO can cause loss of consciousness and death. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. People who are sleeping or who have been drinking alcohol can die from CO poisoning before ever having symptoms.

Important CO Poisoning Prevention Tips

  • Make sure your home has working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms on every level and in sleeping areas. The only way to detect the presence of CO is with a working CO alarm.
  • Do not use ovens or stoves to heat your home.
  • Do not use charcoal or gas grills inside.
  • Do not use unvented gas or kerosene space heaters in enclosed spaces. Keep doors open to the rest of the house to help promote proper ventilation.
  • Open the fireplace damper before lighting a fire and keep it open until the ashes are cool to avert the buildup of carbon monoxide, especially at night while families sleep.
  • Do not run a fuel-powered engine, such as a vehicle or generator, inside the home or in an attached garage or carport. CO fumes can seep into the home through air intake valves, baseboards and doors.
  • Keep dryer vents clear of snow to ensure proper venting.
  • If CO poisoning is suspected, consult a health care professional right away.

Keep fire prevention in mind during winter storms and their aftermath.

  • Ensure that space heaters meet the latest safety standards, which would include having an automatic cut-off device and guarding around the heating coils and burners.
  • Place space heaters on a level, hard and nonflammable surface, and keep them at least three feet away from bedding, drapes, furniture and other flammable materials.
  • Turn off space heaters when you leave an area or before going to sleep. Keep children and pets away.
  • Never use gasoline, charcoal lighter or other fuel to light or relight a fire because the vapors could explode. Keep flammable materials away.

For more information on preventing carbon monoxide poisoning:

For important information about the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning during a power outage, see Returning Home After a Disaster: Be Healthy and Safe, Protect Yourself from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning After an Emergency and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Fact Sheet (from CDC's National Center for Environmental Health [NCEH]).

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