Winter safety goes beyond ice and cold

To the unprepared, New England winters can be dangerous. Sledding, skiing and skating are fun but risky, and it’s impossible to avoid slippery sidewalks or roads narrowed by huge snow banks.

But amidst all the warnings about ice and cold exposure, a potentially deadly winter safety hazard often gets over looked: carbon monoxide (CO) which enters our breathing air through many different sources like car exhaust, indoor charcoal grills, furnaces and other devices powered by fossil fuels. Often called the silent killer, CO is colorless, odorless and tasteless, making leaks and build-ups difficult to notice. Its a dangerous situation and leads to more than 200 deaths every year. Complicating its detection even more, the effects of CO poisoning are very similar to that of a flu, cold or infection. A ringing in the ears, headache, nausea, weakness and/or dizziness all could indicate that a person is being poisoned by carbon monoxide, but because these symptoms are often associated with less serious illnesses, many people who are overexposed to it mistakenly think they’re catching a seasonal bug. In many of these cases the affected person will lie down or rest to feel better, sometimes never waking up.

Exposure to CO can be especially problematic for young children. Because kids have faster heartbeats and accelerated breathing rates, carbon monoxide can spread through their bodies quickly and poison them in less time than it takes to affect adults.

Thrive recently spoke with David Kemmerer, RN, BSN, CSPI, of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Poison Control and Prevention Center, here is some advice he offered on how to protect your family from carbon monoxide this winter.

 Carbon monoxide detectors should be on every floor of your homeInstall a carbon monoxide detector on each floor of your home. A lot of people assume that one CO detector is adequate for the whole house, but, like smoke detectors, experts say every floor of a building should be fitted with a battery powered or hardwired carbon monoxide detector. Battery powered models are as reliable as the wired ones, as long as the batteries are checked regularly and replaced at least once a year.

Change your heating filters before the cold weather starts. Experts suggest homeowners change the filters on their heaters before winter begins so the air they heat their homes with is as clean as possible when daily use becomes necessary. It’s also a good idea to have a private contractor or gas company employee check your heating system annually to make sure there are no leaks and that any old or deteriorating parts can be replaced before they become a problem.

Shovel the venting areas outside your home. Natural gas is used to run a lot of furnaces and clothes dryers, which emit carbon monoxide that is then vented outdoors. But if snow accumulates in front of these ventilation areas the CO may not escape into the air properly, sending it right back into the house. When shoveling a driveway or sidewalk, always take a moment to clear out any ventilation hoses or grates around your home to make sure gases intended to go outside gets there.

Check your pet. Animals are susceptible to CO poisoning as well, sometimes more quickly than humans. If your dog or cat is acting sluggish, is unusually hard to wake up or seems sick, you may want to get the animal some fresh air, check your carbon monoxide detectors and open a window just in case.

Never pre-warm a vehicle indoors. When the temperature drops to single digits, it’s tempting to run the car for a few minutes before you get in it, giving it plenty of time to warm up. But if you park your car in a garage, the risks associated with pre- warming far outweigh the convenience. While it’s doubtful anyone would purposely run their vehicle for anything longer than a few minutes in a small space, people occasionally lose track of time in the rush to get ready. A few moments of absent-mindedness can easily lead to a car pumping out dangerous levels of toxic exhaust in a non-ventilated area. This is especially dangerous if the garage is attached to a person’s home because the carbon monoxide then has the potential to quickly seep into the rest of the house.