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Carbon monoxide an overlooked danger of the winter season

Avoiding overexposure to deadly gas as simple as having a working detector in the home

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 9:00 a.m. CST

As fall gives way to winter, local public safety officials are encouraging area residents to be mindful of a common safety concern of the season — overexposure to carbon monoxide. 

As locals head indoors for the colder months, and residents keep their windows and doors closed, area officials have said the issue is one that tends to pop up. Cindy Wilson, fire and life safety education coordinator for Channahon and Minooka fire protection districts, said with those actions, carbon monoxide in the home tends to build up more.

According to a release from the Coal City Fire Protection District, carbon monoxide can be produced by any burning fuel, from gasoline to natural gas and coal. The effects of carbon monoxide can be serious, causing breathing difficulties, cardiac trauma, and brain damage, the release stated.

Wilson said symptoms of exposure may mimic other illnesses.

"It starts out as kind of like flu-like symptoms," she said, from headaches, dizziness, nausea, to a worsening shortness of breath, chest pains, confusion and vomiting. She said anyone experiencing these should exit the area immediately and seek help if needed.

She also said the most important way to prevent overexposure is simple.

"(The best thing they can do is) make sure they have a detector," she said.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, under Illinois state law, detectors in operating condition are required in every home within 15 feet of every room used for sleeping purposes, with some exceptions. 

Wilson said homeowners should check and replace batteries for their carbon monoxide detectors on the same schedule as their smoke detectors — twice a year. She added that the lifespan of carbon monoxide detectors tends to be shorter than that of smoke detectors, which should be replaced every 10 years. She said carbon monoxide detectors should be replaced every five to six years.

Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District Chief Tracey Steffes said that, while the season is prone to more carbon monoxide calls, the department frequently responds to carbon monoxide-related calls in other seasons, too.

"We run calls all year round for them," he said. "Sometimes people worry more about it in the winter, but it's a hazard that needs to be considered continuously throughout the year."

Both Steffes and Wilson recommended residents have annual checks of their furnaces and heating systems by a professional to make sure everything is running smoothly and efficiently.

"The less efficient it is, the more carbon monoxide it produces," Steffes said.

Wilson said another area of concern for carbon monoxide poisoning is warming up vehicles in garages. She said the buildup of carbon monoxide from a vehicle can be deadly if a garage door is left closed.

"You'd think that's common sense, but people do it," she said.

Steffes said it's something that motorists using vehicles with automatic starters can easily forget. Going a step further, he said it's best to avoid warming a car in the garage.

"Even in an unheated garage, it's warmer than the outside temperature," he said. "There's an imaginary barrier of the outside air and inside air, and until both are equal, fumes will build up and accumulate inside the garage."

He noted that for residences, especially ones with living space above a garage, that buildup can go beyond the garage.

"You could fill your home with carbon monoxide gas and not even realize it —you could pump poisonous gas into your home when your car's running."

In addition to having a furnace checked, Coal City officials also encourage cleaning out dryer vents and lint catches, making sure water heater vent pipes and chimneys are clean and cleared, and that chimneys are checked and cleaned annually.

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