The season of bitter cold temperatures has just begun on Long Island. If you haven’t kicked up your heat yet, chances are you will soon. Now that most residents are cooped up indoors for the season, it’s important to prepare for one of the most preventable accidents that kills hundreds of Americans every year: carbon monoxide poisoning.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is known as the “silent killer” for its colorless, odorless appearance and ability to seep undetected into homes. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), CO is responsible for over 400 deaths, 20,000 hospital visits, and 4,000 hospitalizations every year. Shockingly, this number is conceived to be even higher due to the fact that carbon monoxide poisoning is often misdiagnosed and documented as other illnesses such as the flu.
CO fatalities and illnesses are preventable when you know what to look for. All Long Islanders should be aware of the specific carbon monoxide risks in their home, how to prevent leaks, and what to do if you suspect CO is present.
Why Winter Raises Risks for CO Poisoning
Fatalities caused by carbon monoxide poisoning soar during the winter months with an increase in residents using gas appliances and heaters. Windows and doors also tend to remain sealed when the weather is cold, allowing the gas to build up to deadly proportions without a proper means of escape.
Any appliance or tool that runs on gasoline, natural gas, propane, kerosene, wood, charcoal, or diesel fuel has the potential to produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide gas. CO is found in the fumes that result from burning these fuels and it becomes deadly when large amounts are trapped in enclosed spaces. Some of the most common appliances causing harm to people in the winter include:
- Cars and trucks;
- Small engines (high-pressure washers, floor buggers, welders, pumps, compressors);
- Gas ranges;
- Water Heaters;
- Portable Space Heaters;
- Snow and leaf blowers; and
Most CO leaks are the result of failed or improperly used appliances and heating systems that allow abnormal release and build-up. Open fires using any of the above heating sources can also lead to CO leaks when the fuel does not burn fully.
Signs of CO Poisoning
Because you cannot see, smell, or even taste CO in the air, being aware of the symptoms associated with carbon monoxide poisoning may be your first clue that there is a problem. Everyone reacts differently when exposed to CO, but some of the most common signs and symptoms listed by the U.S. Fire Administration include:
- Shortness of breath;
- Nausea; and
If your home contains a high level of CO or you have been exposed to the gas for a prolonged period of time, symptoms will progressively become more severe, including:
- Mental confusion;
- Loss of muscular coordination;
- Loss of consciousness; and
Unfortunately, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can often be misdiagnosed as other illnesses such as the flu. If you or a loved one experiences a sudden onset of these symptoms (while in the home), and have not come in contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with the flu, remove yourselves from the residence until the CO levels are checked.
How To Prevent CO Poisoning
December is not the coldest month of the year in New York. In fact, January tends to be the time when heat systems are kicked on full blast, resulting in the death of at least two people a day from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Now is the time to protect your home from CO leaks. The New York Department of Health provides the following recommendations to keep your family safe this winter:
- Make sure you have working CO detectors installed to provide warnings that elevated CO levels are present. These devices should be placed according to the manufacturer’s installation instructions and tested at least two times every year.
- Schedule annual maintenance for furnaces and heating appliances in the home. If you have already begun using these appliances, make sure to schedule maintenance as soon as possible.
- Never operate cooking appliances such as stoves for warmth.
- Never use gas or coal grills indoors (especially for warming purposes) or in a semi-enclosed space such as a garage, shed or porch.
- Never use portable generators in the home or basement. Keep these appliances at least 15 feet away from your home at all times.
- Never use gas-powered tools indoors or in a semi-enclosed space such as a crawlspace, garage, shed, or porch.
- If you are idling your car, keep it outside of the garage to prevent CO from getting into the home.
- Check your vehicle’s exhaust pipe for blockage from ice and snow to be sure the CO gas has a method to escape.
Use these safety steps as a guide to keep your family warm and safe as the cold winter season continues. For more information on how to protect your home for CO, check out these resources below:
- New York Department of Health- Carbon Monoxide…The Silent Killer
- C.D.C.- Carbon Monoxide Poisoning FAQ
- U.S. Fire Administration- Carbon monoxide safety outreach materials.
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