Carbon monoxide poisonings spike in colder months

Carbon monoxide poisonings are more common in late fall through winter, but experts said a working carbon monoxide detector can help can people safe.

After weeks and weeks of teasing, the cold weather is finally here. With the falling temperatures of late autumn comes increasing numbers of carbon monoxide poisonings.

“We see it every year when it gets cold and people turn on their heat,” said Dr. Kevin Sprague, attending physician in the Bridgeport Hospital emergency department.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is produced any time fossil fuel is burned in cars, stoves, lanterns, grills, furnaces or other devices. If people don’t manage these appliances properly — such as regularly servicing their furnace, or being sure never to run a car in an enclosed space — carbon monoxide can build up indoors and poison people and animals who breathe it.

At least one area fire official said autumn and winter are peak times for carbon monoxide calls, as that is when people are more likely to use devices that produce the gas. “We do see an uptick through winter,” said Anthony Fabrizi, battalion chief with the Milford Fire Department.

Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting and other “flu-like” symptoms. That is problematic, because people might not automatically associate these symptoms with carbon monoxide, Fabrizi said.

Have a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Carbon monoxide detectors should be placed on each floor of your home near sleeping areas. If your detector is hard-wired or a plug-in model, be sure it has a battery backup.

Replace your carbon monoxide detector because the sensors degrade. The lifespan of your carbon monoxide detector can range from 5 to 10 years.

Service your heating system annually. Make sure your furnace, chimney flues, and gas appliances are in proper working order before the cold weather hits.

Place portable generators outside and as far as possible away from your home. Gasoline-powered generators release carbon monoxide, so make sure they are far from your home.

Make sure inlets and outlets for your furnace are free of snow. Some furnaces have exhaust vents that could become blocked by snow, causing ventilation problems.

After a snowstorm, make sure your car’s exhaust pipe is clear. A clogged exhaust pipe could lead to carbon monoxide buildup in your vehicle.

Never use charcoal or gas grills inside your home or garage. Make sure to use grills outdoors only.

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, leave your home immediately. Call 911 from a cellphone or a neighbor’s house after you have left the home, and call the Connecticut Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222.

“People might think they’re coming down with the flu,” he said.

This is worrisome, as carbon monoxide poisoning can have serious consequences if left untreated, and can lead to death.

Every year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, more than 20,000 visit the emergency room, and more than 4,000 are hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Connecticut, the state poison control center reports that, as of Nov. 13, it had received 266 calls about carbon monoxide exposure. In 2016 and 2015, the center received 293 such calls for each year.

The center’s community education specialist Amy Hanoian-Fontana said that doesn’t mean calls are necessarily spiking this year.

She said the number fluctuates from year to year. For instance, in 2014 there were 344 calls for carbon monoxide exposure and in 2013 there were 410.

Still, she said, carbon-monoxide poisoning is prevalent and are easily avoidable with the right precautions. These include having a carbon monoxide detector in the home, servicing the heating system annually, and placing portable generators as far from the home possible.

But there’s one precaution that stands out from the rest, the experts said.

“Having a carbon monoxide detector is key to safety,” Hanoian-Fontana.