There is a definite chill coming to Illinois. On my nightly walk with the dogs, hats and gloves are now a necessity. Soon boots and thick coats will come out of hiding to add needed warmth when venturing outside.
Furnaces are beginning to kick on more frequently now. Every year, like clockwork, this is the time that calls to poison centers regarding carbon monoxide start to rise. Calls to the Illinois Poison Center in the October – December time period are usually about 50% higher than the June – September months.
IPC’s Public Education Manager Vickie Dance has a personal story with CO poisoning as a result of a faulty furnace.
”I passed out in the bathroom near the furnace in the early hours of the morning. My mom, who was sleeping in the room beside the bathroom, ran to help me since she heard me fall. My brother stopped by to see my mom and came to help when he heard her screaming. While they were both trying to assist me, my mom passed out. My brother had to open the windows and get us both to fresh air. After coming to, both my mom and I thought we probably had the flu since we felt light headed but later found out that the furnace was not operating properly and needed to be replaced. Had my brother not stopped by, my mom and I both could have died of CO poisoning within minutes.”
Why does carbon monoxide poisoning go up in the fall/winter months compared to summer?
Most commonly, it is due to inefficient, malfunctioning furnaces. When natural gas is burned, an efficient heater will have a by-product of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. A faulty heater that has incomplete burning of natural gas will create carbon monoxide (CO) and water.
How bad is carbon monoxide?
Carbon Monoxide is a gas that causes injury and death in two ways.
- It binds to hemoglobin in our red cells and prevents oxygen from binding to that compound. If oxygen cannot be carried by the red cells, it cannot reach the tissues where it is needed and the organs of the body essentially suffocate from lack of oxygen.
- It also binds to the energy producing machinery in the cells (the electron transport chain) and prevents cells from using oxygen to make the energy to function. The individual cells essentially suffocate from the inside and ‘starve’ from the lack of production of ATP, the compound needed to provide energy to the cells.
Organs that are most sensitive to the effects of inhaled carbon monoxide include the heart and brain. Common symptoms/signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
So how can I prevent injury to myself and family this winter?
There are two frequently recommended ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning this winter.
- Have the furnaces and other heaters (e.g. space, water) checked on a yearly basis. Sometimes heaters that were working perfectly the last time they were used in April do not function correctly in November. Annual maintenance checks can save lives.
- Make sure there are functioning carbon monoxide detectors in the home. Even if the furnace was just checked, this will be a lifesaver if something happens to the furnace. It is Illinois state law that every home should have a carbon monoxide detector installed. Perform regular checks on the detectors to ensure they are working properly and the batteries are up to date. A common recommendation from fire departments is to change batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at daylight savings time. CO detectors have varied expiration dates, but if
unsure, consider replacing it. Many newer CO alarms have end-of-life indicators. Replace all CO detectors/alarms according to manufacturer’s instructions, or when the end-of-life signal sounds.
If you have any questions or are concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning, call the experts at the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for information and treatment advice.
Have a happy and safe holidays, Mike
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