Doctors: Heating Costs May Increase Carbon Monoxide Cases

In recent weeks, at least 85 people have been sickened or killed by carbon monoxide poisoning, according to various news reports.

That's not unusual. Every year, hundreds of people are sickened or killed by carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas emitted by gas stoves, water heaters and other sources. Winter is traditionally the peak season for problems, as more people use heating devices to stay warm.

But this winter could be a record-setter because of unusually high energy costs, experts say. People hoping to stay warm cheaply -- by using plastic sheeting to block window drafts, for example -- may instead fall sick from CO poisoning, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.

To avoid CO poisoning, people should install a carbon monoxide detector in their homes and make sure fuel-burning heating units are well-ventilated and working properly.

Carbon monoxide strongly binds to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying proteins in blood. Chronic, low-level exposure can cause health problems, such as headache, drowsiness and cognitive irregularities. Moderate to high levels of CO can cause chest pain, impaired vision, reduced brain function and, in some cases, death. The only way to reverse CO poisoning is through oxygen treatment.

Just last week, a harrowing phone call from a Massachusetts woman highlighted how dangerous the colorless and odorless toxin can be.

"I don't even talk. I can't talk," Helen Roy mumbled on her cell phone to a 911 dispatcher. "My husband -- we need help so bad."

Somehow, Helen's husband, Bob, was finally able to state their location and authorities took them to the hospital. It didn't take Dr. David Peak long to determine that carbon monoxide had nearly starved the Roys of oxygen.

They were close to death when Peak treated them in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which emits pressurized oxygen to rapidly rid the body of CO.

The couple had used a gas-burning forklift inside their welding shop, which caused CO fumes to build up.

"Anything with an engine that is not electric produces fumes and produces carbon monoxide," said Peak, an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

It's not just in buildings that people are exposed to CO. If snow has blocked the exhaust pipe of a running car, CO can build up in the cabin of the car, Peak said.

Children are particularly vulnerable to this, since parents often put their child in a running car while they dig it out from the snow.

"Clear the exhaust first, then it's safe to turn the car on," Peak said.

To keep energy costs low, ACEP has the following tips:

   Do not drink alcohol. Though you may feel warmer, alcohol actually lowers your body temperature by dilating, or enlarging, your blood vessels.

   Temperatures should not be allowed to go below 65 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night. In those conditions, people should wear clothing in layers, particularly covering their head and feet. People can save about 3 percent on heating bills for every degree they lower the thermostat.

   A programmable thermostat can save even more, by reducing temperatures when the house is not occupied and providing a safe and comfortable temperature when people are home.

   Ask your physician if any of your medications could affect your body temperature.

  The use of space heaters, fireplaces, woodstoves and other alternative methods of heating requires proper installation and careful following of manufacturer's instructions, including regular cleaning and servicing. Risks include fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.