Lois Lee, MD, MPH works in Children’s Emergency Department Injury Prevention Program
The city of Boston recently celebrated the fact that no citizens within the city died as a result of a house fire in 2009—the first year with no deaths since 1972, when the Fire Department started keeping records about fire-related deaths. It seems to me in 2010 that deaths from house fires should be a phenomenon of an earlier century, but sadly this is not true.
With some of the older type of housing and the various types of heating devices families use to survive the long New England winters, this is an important fact to celebrate. The use of space heaters, the presence of old electrical wiring and living with persons who smoke in the home all increase the risk of a house fire.
Smoke detectors are key in alerting residents of a home when there is smoke and fire so they can escape in time. Not only can people be burned in a house fire, but they can also suffer from the effects of smoke inhalation.
It is Massachusetts state law that every home must have smoke alarms. But in addition to having the smoke alarms, people must check that the batteries are still good. So, unless the alarm has a long life type of lithium battery, safety experts recommend checking the batteries on a regular basis. To help people remember, it is recommended to check the smoke alarm battery on the daylight savings time days.
Although it is helpful to have a smoke alarm, obviously it is better to prevent the house fire. The proper use of space heaters and NOT smoking in bed (or at all) are important measures to prevent house fires. In addition, candles should be lit only when people are present in the home. If a fire does break out, having a fire extinguisher, especially in the kitchen, is an important first step in putting the fire out.
In addition to having a smoke alarm, it has been Massachusetts law since 2004 that every dwelling unit has a carbon monoxide detector. This law is called Nicole’s Law, named after the 7 year old girl from Plymouth who died from the effects of the odorless, colorless gas, which filled her home after a snowdrift blocked an exhaust vent from her home’s propane-fired boiler.
A carbon monoxide detector sounds an alarm when there are elevated levels of the gas, which can build up in any home with boilers, furnaces and hot water heaters powered by gas, coal, oil or wood. And our long, cold New England winters (can you tell I’m from Florida?) definitely put us at risk for potential carbon monoxide poisoning.
The detectors usually cost about $30 and can be readily purchased at a home building supply store. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning including nausea, headache and fatigue, mimic other disease like the flu. If there is concern that these symptoms are due to carbon monoxide poisoning, a simple blood test can help make the diagnosis.
In addition to the hazards of the cold, we must be aware of the potential hazards of trying to keep warm in the winter. Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are a must have in the house, and the law, in order to keep all of us safe from house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.