This is “Part 2” in my winter series. As you may recall in “Part 1” I spoke about the factors that affect how our bodies lose heat as well as hypothermia and frostbite. In this issue I will talk about Carbon monoxide and share some extreme cold weather tips from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
Carbon Monoxide (referred to as CO) is an odorless, colorless gas that is found in combustion fumes from any device that is producing a flame; this becomes a problem when it does so in an enclosed or partially-enclosed area. Stoves, gasoline-powered engines, generators, wood-burning stoves and even gas ranges can produce carbon monoxide gas. Exposure to high concentrations of this gas can cause very serious and sudden symptoms that can rapidly progress to death – if exposure continues.
The main mechanism by which CO causes problems and poisoning is that CO binds to red blood cells more quickly and avidly than does oxygen. As a result, there is less opportunity for oxygen to bind to the red blood cells. As the concentration of oxygen in the bloodstream is lowered, cells can become injured and, in the case of severe CO poisoning, die.
Early symptoms of CO exposure and poisoning are typically the onset of a headache, sometimes dizziness, weakness, nausea and vomiting, and a quick progression to confusion. In some instances, a person may even experience chest pain- particularly if they have pre-existing heart or lung disease. One of the problems with CO exposure is that if a person is sleeping, has been drinking alcohol or using other substances that can alter awareness, they can die from CO poisoning before they ever experience any symptoms! Any family where everyone suddenly has the simultaneous, rapid onset of symptoms that seems like the flu should be highly suspicious for CO exposure. If CO poisoning is suspected, one needs to be evaluated right away. The environment they were in needs to be ventilated as soon as possible - by professionals who can test for and deal with CO build-up. In most situations, this means the local fire department.
Some fortunate people are very sensitive to CO and experience mild symptoms at very low concentrations. An example would be getting a headache while in heavy, stop-and-go traffic on a hot day or getting a headache while driving stop-and-go in a long underground tunnel.
So, the logical question is “How do I prevent CO poisoning?” The first and foremost way is to make sure a CO detector is installed (and properly functioning!) in your house/apartment. In the case of a power outage, never, and I repeat, never use a gas range or open oven to heat your apartment/house! If you have a garage attached to your home, never leave the car running or idling in it, since CO can “seep” into your home. You should never run a generator or any gasoline-powered device in a garage, under a window, near a door or anywhere where the exhaust gases can enter into a home. Make sure that you use a device that specifically states it is approved for use inside a home before using it as a supplemental source of heat. If you do lose power, don’t use a fireplace that hasn’t been used in years, or has not been properly inspected and cleaned. These rules also apply to a car; don’t sit in a parked car with the heater running for a prolonged period of time. You should also have your vehicle’s exhaust system checked in the fall to make sure there are no leaks (we tend to keep windows closed in the winter rather than in the warmer seasons). Just a small leak in an exhaust system can cause CO gas to build up in a stationary vehicle.
Finally, we would like to pass on the following cold weather safety tips from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA):
So, in closing, I would like to remind you to use common sense, be safe, take care and enjoy the winter season. But, above all, respect the strength and unpredictability of Mother Nature.