Jack Frost has come knocking on many doors already, and with Christmas quickly approaching, will likely knock on many more. As families and friends gather for the holidays and temperatures dip, the furnaces, space heaters, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves and water heaters get turned on or cranked up, making for a potentially dangerous situation.
In addition to an increased fire risk due to heating equipment, winter also poses an increased risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), it’s becoming an increasingly common issue.
In 2012, the NFPA found an estimated 80,100 non-fire carbon CO incidents, a 96 percent increase since 2003. Thanks to a prevalence of CO detectors, people are now more likely to be alerted to the risk, accounting at least in part for the increase. However, CO poisonings are still all too common.
After just moving into a new home, 13-year-old Zoey Hernandez suddenly died in 2015 two days after Christmas, and an autopsy found high levels of carbon monoxide in her system. “If there were the proper monitors up in each room like they’re supposed to be then this just wouldn’t have happened,” Kim Holt, her mother, told ABC13 at the time of the incident. “Three days ago, I had a little girl that was the world to me, and now she’s gone because of this.”
CO poisonings are the most common type of unintentional poisoning in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 400 Americans die, more than 20,000 visit an emergency room and more than 4,000 are hospitalized due to it.
Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and tasteless to humans, and poisoning is usually caused by improper ventilation. Its symptoms are actually often mistaken for the flu. If you experience headaches, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion, you may not just have a Christmas cold.
CO poisoning can happen quickly or slowly depending on the level of exposure, but can have life-threatening effects either way. To prevent CO poisoning, the CDC and NFPA make the following suggestions:
- Install and regularly check battery-operated CO detectors. Place detectors in places where they will wake you in case of emergency. Replace them every five years.
- Never use an oven, a gas range or charcoal to heat your home.
- Turn portable heaters off when not in the room or going to bed.
- Have your heating system, water heater and other fossil-fuel-burning appliances serviced by a certified technician every year. Make sure they are vented properly and clear in the case of a snow storm.
- Have your chimney checked and cleaned every year.
- Remove vehicles from the garage if warming them.
National Fire Protection Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention