CO deaths, increase with colder weather

LEWISTOWN – As the chilly fall weather creeps up on the Juniata Valley, with winter not far behind, area residents should take proper precautions to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning when turning on heating systems, said Dr. Raselette Hunt, family practitioner at Geisinger-Lewistown.

“Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, colorless gas that comes from fumes produced by cars, stoves, burning charcoal or wood, gas ranges and heating systems,” Hunt said. “CO poisoning symptoms vary and are relatively non-specific, which makes it almost impossible for people to identify.”

Each year, 40,000 emergency department visits and 6,000 deaths are attributed to carbon monoxide poisonings, Hunt said. It’s the leading cause of unintentional death nationwide.

“Cases of CO poisoning are most common in the winter because people are in enclosed spaces using a potentially harmful heating system,” Hunt said. “Without taking necessary precautions, people can be experiencing CO poisoning without knowing it, which can eventually lead to death.”

The best way to prevent CO poisoning is to install a carbon monoxide detector, with back-up batteries, for every level of the home, Hunt said. It’s also important to get heating systems inspected before turning them on for the season, she said.

If a heating system is malfunctioning, residents may notice condensation on the walls and windows, house plants dying, pets becoming sluggish and chronic odors from the heating appliance, according to UGI Utilities, a natural gas and electric provider servicing 45 counties in Pennsylvania, including Mifflin and Juniata counties.

Residents may also experience symptoms including headache, confusion, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting and chest pain, according to the Center for Disease Control. High levels of carbon monoxide inhalation and exposure can cause loss of consciousness and possibly death.

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should get to fresh air immediately and call 9-1-1, whether or not they are sure of CO poisoning, Hunt said. Doctors should also administer a blood test to check for the amount of CO exposure in the blood stream, she said.

“When the body inhales carbon monoxide, it enters the blood stream and attaches to the blood cell, displacing the oxygen” Hunt said. “So when the blood travels through the body, organs are getting carbon monoxide instead of the oxygen it needs. The more carbon monoxide there is in the blood, the more dangerous it is.”

In addition to fuel burning appliances, common sources of CO poisoning are blocked and improperly lined chimneys, unvented space heaters and indoor use of a charcoal barbecue grill, according to a UGI Utilities press release.

Chimney or appliance vents should also be cleaned and inspected for leakage, debris blockages or a buildup of creosote, according to UGI. If there are black stains on the outside of the chimney or flue, it could mean pollutants, like carbon, are leaking into the home.

For more information, visit the CDC’s carbon monoxide information page at