Carbon monoxide: This is what you need to know about this serious health danger during freezing weather

HOUSTON – Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas that is odorless and colorless and was sadly responsible for many deaths and illnesses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning not linked to fires. The CDC reports more than 20,000 people visit the emergency room, and more than 4,000 are hospitalized.

During the Texas winter storm in February 2021, the Cy-Fair Fire Department said they responded to multiple calls for CO poisoning. They said 14 people, including seven children, had to be transported to a hospital for CO poisoning, and all those who were ill had been using grills to heat their homes.

Local hospitals saw a surge in CO cases, including Memorial Hermann, which saw over 100 CO patients. Medical director Samuel Prater called the surge in cases an “absolute public health disaster” that he likened to a “mass casualty situation.”

“It really is just sad that it’s come to this,” Prater said. “It’s such a desperate time that people are resorting to very desperate measures to try to warm their family.”

According to Prater, children are more at risk of some of the long-term damages of CO poisoning because they consume more oxygen than adults.

“Fortunately, for carbon monoxide poisoning the therapy is oxygen, and we have plenty of oxygen to go around to administer to patients,” Prater said. “We’ll put families together in one room with multiple different oxygen delivery sources and give the family oxygen at the same time while we sort out which family members needs what’s called ‘hyperbaric oxygen therapy,’ because certain patients will need that if they have a severe poisoning.”

Where is CO found?

The gas is found in fumes produced by burning fuels in vehicles, stoves, grills, fireplaces and furnaces. In an enclosed space with not enough ventilation, it can build up and cause serious risk to people and animals who breathe it.

Symptoms of CO poisoning

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Excessive amounts of CO, can lead to unconsciousness or death

Ways to prevent CO poisoning

  • Do not run a car in a garage with the garage door closed, move the vehicle to the driveway or the street if you’re trying to warm up in your car
  • Have your heating system and other CO producing systems and appliances regularly serviced
  • Use a CO detector in your home, but make sure it can run on battery power if you lose electricity
  • Do not use portable, flameless chemical heaters indoors
  • Have your chimney checked or cleaned annually
  • Never use a gas range or oven for heating
  • Dot burn charcoal indoors

If you suspect you or someone you know is suffering from the side effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, get away from the potential exposure hazard and seek medical advice or attention immediately.