Carbon monoxide poisoning spikes in winter: here’s what you need to know

In the past few weeks, there’s been a couple of incidents of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning; nine people were sent to hospital in Ontario and at least one person died in a vehicle in northern Alberta.

In fact, more than 50 people die every year from CO poisoning in Canada, according to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.

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Woman found dead in car in northern Alberta died of carbon-monoxide poisoning: family

In light of recent events, Health Canada is warning Canadians to be vigilant in their homes and elsewhere, and to be cognizant of the dangers of carbon monoxide.

Francis Lavoie, a biologist at the Water and Air Quality Bureau department at Health Canada, said CO poisoning spikes in the winter, likely because there are more heating devices used during that time.

Here are some tips on how to avoid, recognize and deal with carbon monoxide poisoning.

READ MORE: 8 treated for carbon monoxide exposure at Mississauga house

What is CO?

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odorless gas that is produced whenever combustion occurs. That means any fuel-burning appliance in your home can make it.

“Whenever you burn something whether it’s wood, natural gas, oil, paper or propane, there’s CO produced,” Lavoie explained.

CO enters the body through the lungs, replaces oxygen in the blood and prevents the flow of oxygen to the heart, brain and other vital organs.

The National Fire Protection Association says a person can be poisoned by a small amount of CO over a longer period of time or by a large amount of CO over a shorter amount of time.

READ MORE: Close call during carbon monoxide incident leads to call for more education in New Brunswick

Install an alarm

Since the gas is odorless and invisible, there’s no way to know if there’s a buildup in your home.

“Basically, the only way to know if you have a CO problem in your home is to have a CO alarm. Because you wouldn’t see it, you wouldn’t smell it, you wouldn’t taste it,” Lavoie explained.

While it’s recommended that you have a detector on every storey of your home, Lavoie said it’s more important to have one near bedrooms, but if people sleep on multiple levels, then you should have more than one.

He said you should also test your alarm regularly and replace it according to the manufacturer’s suggestion; the usual lifetime of a CO detector is about five to seven years.

WATCH: How to protect your family from carbon monoxide

Regular maintenance

While the CO alarm will tell you if you have high levels of CO in your home, it’s still important to try to keep the CO levels in your house low.

To do that, Lavoie recommends regular maintenance of your appliances.

“We recommend annual maintenance of your woodstoves, your furnace should be maintained manually and you should clean your chimney if you have a chimney just to make sure it’s not blocked by ice or snow,” he said.

“Because if it’s blocked, your combustion byproducts aren’t vented outside and they come back in your home.”

Lavoie said it’s also important to remember to check appliances or chimneys at cottages as well, which is sometimes overlooked.

READ MORE: Hundreds of people evacuated from Calgary condo after carbon monoxide leak

Cars, snowblowers and lawnmowers

Another common source of CO poisoning is idling your cars, for example, when you’re warming it up in the winter.

“One thing you have to be careful about is with the snow… even if it’s in the driveway,” Lavoie warned.

“If the exhaust is blocked with snow … obviously, the CO is not vented outside the car.”

He also said snowblowers and even lawnmowers (in the summer) shouldn’t be left idling in enclosed spaces like garages, even if the garage door is open.

READ MORE: Boiler at Acheson repair shop shut down after worker’s death

Recognizing CO poisoning symptoms

Lavoie said symptoms may be hard to recognize because they are similar to the flu.

Headaches, shortness of breath, impaired motor functions and muscle weakness will be the first signs.

If higher levels of CO persist, symptoms escalate to dizziness, chest pain and poor vision.

Very high levels produce convulsions, or a coma – and even death. That’s why it’s important to recognize the symptoms early on.

What to do if you think you have CO poisoning

If your CO alarm goes off, or you think you see CO poisoning symptoms, you should leave the premises as soon as possible and seek fresh air.

“Just leave the home, don’t try to figure out what the source is,” Lavoie said.

“And call 911 from your cellphone or a neighbour’s house and don’t come back,” until an official tells you it’s OK, Lavoie says.

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