How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning this winter: Expert tips to keep you safe

·5 min read

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have carbon monoxide under control
have carbon monoxide under control

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As we heat our homes and cabins this winter, experts are urging people to make themselves familiar with the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. 

While it's possible for carbon monoxide poisoning to occur at any time fo year, it's most common in the winter, when people are more likely to use gas furnaces and heaters inside their homes.

On Dec. 18, seven members of a family died in Minnesota from what officials deemed an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. An investigation into the family's deaths found that the poisoning could have originated from the home's furnace or a vehicle parked in the garage.

According to a report by the University of Fraser Valley, there are approximately 300 carbon monoxide related deaths each year in Canada, most of which are accidental poisonings while Canadians are asleep. In the United States, more than 400 people die each year from the "silent killer" of the odourless, colourless and tasteless gas.

Understanding the signs, symptoms and steps to take to prevent potential poisoning can help keep you and your family safe. 

Accidental carbon monoxide poisoning often occurs during the winter. (Image via Getty Images)
Accidental carbon monoxide poisoning often occurs during the winter. (Image via Getty Images)

What is carbon monoxide poisoning?

When there’s too much carbon monoxide in the air, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with the gas. Carbon monoxide is produced when you burn gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel.

If appliances and engines like furnaces, fireplaces and stoves are poorly ventilated, carbon monoxide can quickly build-up to a toxic level.

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What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Although carbon monoxide is odourless and colourless, there are physical symptoms that indicate whether a person has been exposed to high carbon monoxide levels. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, dizziness, vomiting, tiredness, chest pain and headaches. 

Someone with severe carbon monoxide poisoning may experience irritability, an altered mental status, loss of consciousness, coma and death. It’s especially dangerous for children and people with preexisting conditions, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

What are the long-term impacts of carbon monoxide poisoning?

While most carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms occur immediately, in some cases the effects don’t show up until weeks later. 

When you’re exposed to carbon monoxide, the amount of time you have before experiencing certain symptoms like loss of consciousness depends on various factors, including how big the space is and whether it has proper ventilation.

Memory loss can be a long-term impact of carbon monoxide poisoning.  (Image via Getty Images)
Memory loss can be a long-term impact of carbon monoxide poisoning. (Image via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, sometimes just opening a door or window may not be enough. According to Dr. Ken LeDez, an anesthesiologist and specialist in hyperbaric medicine in Newfoundland, if it’s very cold outside, opening a window or a door can create a wall with relatively little mixing between the warmer air inside.

If the concentration of carbon monoxide is very high someone can be impacted within as little as a few minutes and if the concentration is lower it can take several hours

LeDez says carbon monoxide poisoning can cause "severe neurologic damage," including things like depression, severe memory loss and "Parkinson's disease type" symptoms. 

In an interview with Yahoo Canada, LeDez says it’s important to manage any prolonged symptoms like dizziness or impaired cognitions with treatment as soon as possible. 

“I’ve seen many, many patients who have not sought treatment, who have had long-term consequences and are basically unable to work ever again,” he explains.

As an expert in carbon monoxide poisoning, LeDez recommends treating the more serious cases with hyperbaric oxygen to prevent delayed onset effects and treat the immediate symptoms as well.

Patients who undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy sit in a special chamber and breathe in pure oxygen with air pressure levels up to three times higher than average, allowing the body to heal.  

What do you do if you suspect someone has carbon monoxide poisoning? 

If you believe someone has been affected by carbon monoxide poisoning, make sure to open windows and doors quickly, or evacuate the home and call 911. Firefighters have the necessary equipment to measure the levels of carbon monoxide in the home.

Make sure you also protect yourself by going outside and getting fresh air after being in the affected space.

A battery-operated carbon monoxide detector can help keep you and your family safe. (Image via Getty Images)
A battery-operated carbon monoxide detector can help keep you and your family safe. (Image via Getty Images)

How do you prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide poisoning is preventable with proper tools and maintenance. The most important way to keep your family safe is by outfitting your home with a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector. You should install one on each level of your home and near the bedrooms, replacing the batteries twice a year. 

The Canadian Red Cross says it's also important to have fuel-based appliances and equipment serviced annually by a qualified professional and to never run a vehicle inside a garage.

Aside from the recommended tools and servicing, look out for other people in your community by checking in on them if you haven’t seen them in a while.

“Certainly neighbours have rescued lots of people in my experience,” LeDez says.

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