Every year in Illinois, the glorious days of summer lead to the cooler days of fall and eventually the bone-chilling cold of winter. Hats, scarves, thick coats and gloves become a necessity when venturing outside. To keep our indoor spaces comfortable, the indoor thermostats are inched a little warmer and furnaces start to work more frequently.
Every year, like clockwork, this is the time that calls to poison centers regarding carbon monoxide start to rise. Calls to the Illinois Poison Center in the October- December time period are usually about 50% higher than the June-September months. Every year, over 400 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning, many during the cold weather season. <!–split–>
Why does carbon monoxide poisoning go up in the fall/winter months compared to summer? Most commonly, it is due to inefficient, malfunctioning furnaces. When natural gas is burned, an efficient heater will create carbon dioxide (CO2) and water during combustion. A faulty heater that has incomplete burning of natural gas will create carbon monoxide (CO) and water.
How bad is carbon monoxide? Carbon Monoxide is a gas that causes injury and death in two ways. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body’s organs and tissues. CO binds to hemoglobin in our red cells which prevents oxygen from binding to the hemoglobin. Since oxygen cannot be carried by the CO poisoned red cells, the organs of the body essentially suffocate from lack of oxygen. CO also binds to the energy producing machinery in the cells (the electron transport chain) and prevents cells from making ATP which is the energy needed for cells to function. Without ATP, the cells begins to malfunction and can die. Organs that are most sensitive to the effects of inhaled carbon monoxide include the heart and brain.
Common symptoms/signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Visual changes
- Memory problems
- Walking problems
- Shortness of breath on exertion
- Chest pain
So how can I prevent injury to myself and family this winter? Here are some recommended ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning this winter.
- Check and service furnaces and other heaters (e.g. space heater, water heater) on a yearly basis. Sometimes heaters that were working perfectly the last time they were used in April do not function correctly in November. Annual maintenance checks, prior to cold season, can save lives.
- Gasoline powered generators are commonly used during an extended power loss and are a deadly source of carbon monoxide—one portable generator can produce the same amount of CO as 100 idling cars.
- Never operate a generator in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space such as a basement, garage, barn, or enclosed porch.
- Place generators at least 20 feet away from any doors or windows—buy an appropriate electrical cord that is sufficiently long.
- Make sure there are functioning carbon monoxide detectors in the home. Even if the furnace was just checked, this will be a lifesaver if something happens and the furnace or other gas powered device malfunctions. It is Illinois law that every home should have a carbon monoxide detector installed within 15 feet of rooms used for sleeping.
- Regular Checks: Perform regular checks on the detectors to ensure they are working properly and the batteries are up to date. A common recommendation from fire departments is to change batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at daylight savings time.
- Expiration Dates: CO detectors have varied expiration dates, but if unsure, consider replacing it. Many newer COalarms have end-of-life indicators. Replace all CO detectors/alarms according to manufacturer’s instructions, orwhen the end-of-life signal sounds.
- If your CO detector alarms, if you have any questions or are concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning, call the experts at the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for information and treatment advice.
May you have a safe and blessed Christmas.
Your Parish Nurse, Kara