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Category: Preparing for Emergencies

Better Safe Than Sorry

 Tips for Avoiding Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in the Winter

by LeAnn R. Ralph

Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, and that, of course, is exactly why it is so deadly.

I interviewed three fire chiefs and two emergency medical technicians in the area where I live in Wisconsin for a two-part series on carbon monoxide poisoning that I wrote for the newspaper at which I am employed.

Here’s what they had to say. . .


Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels like wood, natural gas, gasoline, kerosene, charcoal, oil or coal do not have enough oxygen to burn completely.

In general, the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include headache, nausea, weakness, mental confusion and shortness of breath. Carbon monoxide poisoning often is described as creating flu-like symptoms.

According to the fire chiefs and EMTs, the number one cause for carbon monoxide poisoning is a malfunctioning furnace, and they all mentioned one specific case that occurred in our area last fall.

Members of a particular family noticed that they were suffering from headaches and nausea. When they left the house during the day, the headaches and nausea went away. When they returned at night, the headaches and nausea returned. Still, the symptoms were nothing more than an annoying headache and a bit of nausea so they thought nothing of it. Perhaps the whole family had been exposed to a virus of some kind.

As the weather grew colder, the family began using the furnace more and more. The symptoms grew worse until one evening, a family member called 911 because they were all so ill.

First responders on the scene recognized the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and called the fire department. When firefighters put the carbon monoxide tester by the heat register, it went off the scale. EMTs had to wait to enter the home until the the windows and doors had been opened to clear out the carbon monoxide.

Fortunately, all of the family members survived.

The fire chiefs and EMTs recommend having your furnace checked by a certified furnace technician in late summer or early fall so that you know your furnace is functioning properly when heating season arrives.

If your furnace has vent pipes near ground level outside your home, check the pipes when the temperature is below freezing to make sure they are not plugged by snow or ice.


Garages can also be a source of carbon monoxide.

When the weather is very cold, people will start their car in a garage that is attached to a house to let it warm up.

But even with the garage door open, carbon monoxide can seep in your home, say the fire chiefs and EMTs. If the weather is cold for a week or more, the carbon monoxide can eventually build up to dangerous level inside the house. And because new houses are built to be air-tight and energy-efficient, the carbon monoxide has little opportunity to escape.

“In ‘the good old days’ when people lived in drafty houses where the curtains moved in the winter, you never heard of anyone being poisoned by carbon monoxide,” said one of the EMTs.

If you want to let your car run for a while to warm it up, back it out of the garage and shut the door, say the fire chiefs and EMTs.

Garages also can pose a problem during winter weather for people who like to work on their cars.

Last year, the 22-year-old grandson of one of our church members died while working on his car. The weather was especially cold outside, so he was working on his car in the garage with the door closed. The young man would make adjustments to the engine, start the car to see how it was running, shut it off, make more adjustments, start it again. Eventually he was overcome by carbon monoxide.

Do not start your car (or snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle) in the garage with the door closed for any reason.

Alternative Sources of Heat

If the electricity goes out in the winter, people are sometimes tempted to try to keep their home warm until the electricity comes back on by turning on a gas oven and opening the door or by starting a gas grill or charcoal grill inside the house.

Never use a gas oven or a barbecue grill to heat your home, say the fire chiefs and EMTs.

Carbon monoxide can also be a problem when certain areas of a home -- or a garage or a workshop -- are especially cold and people use a fuel-burning space heater (kerosene is a good example) to provide additional heat.

Before using a fuel-burning space heater, get it checked out by a certified technician to make sure that it is functioning properly. And also be sure to operate it in a well-ventilated area by opening windows and doors.

A few years ago during the winter, an elderly neighbor’s furnace stopped working. She could not afford to have the furnace fixed or replaced, so she purchased a kerosene heater and was using it to heat the downstairs area of her house.

One day, the driver of a fuel-delivery truck stopped by to see if her liquid propane tank needed to be filled. The driver noticed that the tank was at the same level it been at the last time he had stopped a month earlier, so he went to house to make sure the woman was all right.

He knocked on the front door, and as soon as the woman opened the door, he said he was nearly overcome by the kerosene fumes that billowed from the house. He found out that the woman’s furnace had stopped working and alerted the proper authorities who were able to provide emergency shelter until a human services agency could arrange for funding to replace the furnace.

The elderly are more susceptible to fumes and to carbon monoxide poisoning, said the fire chiefs and EMTs, and in this case, the woman was lucky to have survived the experience.

If you must operate a fuel-burning space heater, be sure to open some windows.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Carbon monoxide detectors can be purchased at most hardware stores, and prices can be anywhere from $20 up to around $50.

Many different types of detectors are available, ranging from a straight carbon monoxide detector, to a combination detector that will alert you to the presence of carbon monoxide or natural gas, to units that are a combination carbon monoxide and smoke detector.

Some detectors are battery operated, some plug into an outlet, and some have digital read-outs. No matter what type of detector you have in your home, if the alarm is going off, call the fire department, the gas company or a furnace repair technician to check it out.

The fire chiefs and EMTs noted that putting a carbon monoxide detector near your fuel-burning furnace is a good idea. Carbon monoxide detectors should also be installed on every level of the house, near the main family area and near the bedroom areas.

If you have a gas water heater or a gas dryer or a gas stove in the kitchen, you might want to install carbon monoxide detectors near those appliances as well.

And always be sure to buy detectors that have been approved by a recognized testing agency and have a seal of approval. Follow the recommendations on the box as to how many detectors should be installed and where they should be installed for that particular detector.

Additional Tips to Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Remember that the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include sleepiness, headache, nausea, weakness, shortness of breath and mental confusion.

If symptoms get better when you leave the house but get worse when you return, you might want to suspect that carbon monoxide poisoning is the culprit.

If you think you have been exposed to carbon monoxide, leave your house and call the fire department from a friend’s or neighbor’s house (or use your cell phone) and do not go back inside until the house has been checked.

Do not open doors and windows until the fire department or a furnace repair technician or a utility company employee has checked your home for carbon monoxide. Opening the doors and windows will reduce the amount of carbon monoxide, and the testing device will not give adequate information about the carbon monoxide level in your home.

If you suspect that a friend, relative or neighbor has been overcome by carbon monoxide, leave the home immediately and call the fire department.

LeAnn R. Ralph is a reporter in Wisconsin. She also is the author of books about growing up on a small family dairy farm 40 years ago. The Midwest Book Review calls this series of books “Highly recommended reading!” You are invited to sign up for the twice-monthly newsletter from Rural Route 2 --  


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