Firefighters sound alarm on carbon monoxide poisoning risk

The St. John's Regional Fire Department says they receive about 60 calls a year regarding carbon monoxide poisoning. Now that temperatures are dropping across the province, they expect that number to rise.
The St. John's Regional Fire Department is touting the importance of carbon monoxide detectors, especially during the winter months when people are using alternate heat sources. (iStock)

Fire departments across Newfoundland and Labrador are warning the public on the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Two people died in a tragic incident last week in a car off Portugal Cove Road in St. John's, which police later deemed as accidental.

While that tragedy has raised awareness of the danger of carbon monoxide in vehicles, the department is also worried about what is going on inside people's homes. 

Officials say they receive about 60 calls a year regarding carbon monoxide poisoning in the city, averaging at least one per week.

Now that temperatures are dropping across the province, they expect that number to rise.

The reason is the use of alternative heating sources, which has been an increasing trend in Newfoundland and Labrador since the rolling power outages of 2013, also known as DarkNL.

Elevated risk

Fire prevention officer Mike Maher has been warning people about the increased risks of burning hydrocarbons.

"We want to remind citizens that when they're looking at using secondary sources of heat with the onset of colder temperatures, to exercise caution," Maher said.

"Especially when it comes to any solid fuel burning appliances, such as a wood stove, any devices such as propane operated appliances, kerosene, anything of that nature." 
Mike Maher, with the St. John's Regional Fire Department, said people should take necessary precautions when using generators near the home. (CBC)

Maher said people should have a carbon monoxide detector installed on every level of their home, outside of each room in which people sleep. As well, he advises that if people are using generators, they should be aware of the dangers related to them and take the necessary precautions.

"They should be used only in a ventilated area, preferably outside on stable ground, away from windows and vents to prevent any deadly fumes from entering the home through an opening," Maher told CBC News.

Dangers

Maher said that carbon monoxide poisoning is especially dangerous, given its reputation of being a silent killer.

"What makes it very nasty is the fact that it is both colourless — and odourless," he said.

"If anybody is wondering what some of the symptoms are, they can range anything from headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion."

"When the levels become highly elevated, that can bring on loss of consciousness and subsequently death."

An alarming case

In an interview with the CBC's Cecil Haire, Derek Chafe of the St. John's Regional Fire Department pointed to a recent call that the department answered. The example highlights how easily carbon monoxide can get into a home.

In the incident, the department responded to a call of an alarm going off at a residence. When crews arrived, they searched the entire house and discovered that one room had a higher reading than the others.
St. John's Regional Fire Department Supt. Derek Chafe cited a recent close call at a residence in the city as proof that carbon monoxide detectors can save lives. (CBC)

Chafe said the source of the gas was something most people wouldn't even think of.

"The exhaust from a car had crept in through the window and caused their carbon monoxide levels to increase in their home, and set off their alarm," he said. 

"The carbon monoxide levels were building in the home."

While it may have been an extreme case, Chafe credits the carbon monoxide detector in the house as possibly saving their lives.

"Because the detector was there, these people were able to pick it up, and they were able to get safe air in their house again," he said.

Safety tips

The St. John's Regional Fire Department has released a number of safety tips for the public to keep in mind to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

CO Alarms

  • When purchasing, ensure that it bears the seal of a national testing agency.
  • Follow manufacturer’s instruction for installation and maintenance.
  • Install outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home including the basement.
  • Keep CO alarms clear of dust and debris.
  • Ensure CO alarms are plugged all the way into a working outlet, or if battery-operated, have working batteries.

General Heating Safety

  • Only use appliances indoors or in enclosed areas that are approved for indoor use.
  • DO have your fuel-burning appliances — including oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas, fireplaces, and wood stoves inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season. Make certain that the flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition, and not blocked.
  • DO choose appliances that vent their fumes to the outside whenever possible, have them properly installed, and maintain them according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  • DON’T idle the car in the garage — even if the garage door to the outside is open. Fumes can build up very quickly in the garage and living area of your home.
  • DON’T use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
  • DON’T ever use a charcoal grill indoors, even in a fireplace.
  • DON’T use any gasoline-powered engines (mowers, weed trimmers, snow blowers, chain saws, small engines or generators) in enclosed spaces.
  • During periods of high snow accumulations, ensure that all exterior vents outside the home are clear of snow at all times, so appliances can vent properly.

Portable Generator Safety

  • Use only outdoors on a stable surface and away from any windows and vents to prevent deadly fumes from entering the home through an opening.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Never fill the generator with fuel while it is running or still hot. Turn it off and let it cool. 
  • Fuel spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.
  • Always store fuel outside of living areas, away from fuel-burning appliances, in properly approved metal containers.

With files from Cecil Haire

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