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As heating season arrives, CDC warns of CO dangers

October 21, 2018 GMT

As a chill fills the air and state residents finally surrender and turn on their heat for the season, an insidious health threat is lying in wait. It’s carbon monoxide poisoning, which kills more than 400 people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Already this year, at least 150 carbon monoxide exposures have been reported to the Connecticut Poison Control Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

“Carbon monoxide is so stealthy,” said Amy Hanoian-Fontana, community education specialist at the poison control center. “It doesn’t have a smell. It doesn’t have a color. You don’t know when it’s in the atmosphere. It’s pretty nebulous.”

Nebulous though it may be, carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that can lead to serious illness or death. It’s found in fumes produced by portable generators, stoves, lanterns, and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal and wood. Carbon monoxide can build up in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces, making people and animals ill. The CDC reports that about 50,000 people in the U.S. visit the emergency department each year due to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

And it’s around this time of year, when temperatures drop and people fire up the furnace, that cases start to rise, experts said. “We have started to respond to a few carbon monoxide alarm activations and I expect these will increase sharply once the weather gets colder,” said Monroe Fire Department spokesman Kevin Catalano in an email.

Meanwhile, two doctors in Bridgeport Hospital’s emergency department said, though they haven’t seen an influx of people with carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms yet, that could be on the horizon.

“It’s a time when we start switching all the heat on, and it’s been a while since we’ve turned those items on and they might not be in the best working order,” said Dr. Rock Ferrigno, chairman of Bridgeport Hospital’s Emergency Department.

Bridgeport Hospital emergency physician Dr. Michael Werdmann agreed. “It would make sense (for cases to rise this time of year),” he said. “Usually the furnace is getting turned on after probably not being cleaned for a while,” which can cause problems.

Adding to the stealthy nature of carbon monoxide poisoning is that its many of its symptoms mimic those of flu — headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, and vomiting. Thus, Werdmann said, people could have carbon monoxide poisoning and not even realize it.

Experts said the best thing homeowners can do to protect themselves is to be prepared. “It’s a great time to get your furnace inspected or your chimney cleaned,” Hanoian-Fontana said. She also recommended people change the batteries in their carbon monoxide detectors (and smoke detectors) to make sure they are in good working order.

Catalano also stressed the importance of working carbon monoxide alarms — at least one on each floor of living space. “If an alarm sounds only intermittently, this is usually the sign of a low battery or malfunctioning device,” he said. “If the alarm sounds continuously, individuals should evacuate the house and call the fire department.”

The important thing is to be vigilant, Ferrigno said. “It’s a time when you really should be aware that this is a possibility in the home,” he said.