Spike in carbon monoxide incidents in Edmonton accompanies recent plunge in temperatures

With the recent deaths of two adults in northern Alberta and cold temperatures forecast for weeks to come, emergency responders are reminding people to be alert to the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Earlier this week, RCMP discovered the bodies of a 64-year-old man and 58-year-old woman in a home in Little Buffalo, Alta., about 75 kilometres east of Peace River.

After officers inside the home began feeling dizzy and light-headed, tests determined the home had high levels of carbon monoxide. The cause is still under investigation.

In Edmonton, the fire department responded to 34 calls involving carbon monoxide between Dec. 23 and 28, said fire marshall Rebecca Webber.

Webber said that safety risks can happen when people are trying to stay warm during a cold snap.

“That could be from vehicles being run inside attached garages, maybe the incomplete burning of fuel, or a wood-burning fireplace. Maybe that’s a chimney that wasn’t clean and then the carbon monoxide builds up,” she said.

What it is

Carbon monoxide (CO) is produced when fuels such as gasoline, wood, coal, natural gas, propane, oil and methane are burned.

It can build up to dangerous levels when fuel-burning generators, space heaters and other appliances intended for use outside or in well-ventilated spaces are brought indoors.

Symptoms of CO poisoning

Carbon monoxide is often called the silent killer because it has no odour. 

According to Health Canada, exposure to the gas at low levels can cause symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, tiredness, muscle weakness and loss of function in a body part such as a limb.

Exposure to higher levels — or lower levels for long periods of time — can cause impaired vision, chest pain, dizziness, and trouble formulating thoughts.

Other signs to look for include stale or stuffy air inside your home, moisture and soot build-up on windows and walls, a yellow flame instead of a blue flame from your natural gas appliances, and a pilot light that keeps going out.

There are more than 300 deaths and more than 200 hospitalizations related to carbon monoxide poisoning each year in Canada, according to a 2017 study done by the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit and the University of the Fraser Valley.

How to stay safe

Webber said all homes should have carbon monoxide detectors, ideally located outside every sleeping area.

“It’s very, very important to have those working carbon monoxide alarms installed in your home, particularly near bedrooms and gas-fired appliances, so that you’re alerted as soon as possible and then leave the home immediately and call 911,” she said.

Health Canada recommends that homeowners should ensure annual inspections and regular maintenance of fuel-burning appliances like fireplaces, furnaces, gas stoves and water heaters.

As well, experts say homeowners should check that chimneys, fireplaces and vents are not blocked by snow build-up or other debris, and to avoid idling vehicles inside a closed garage.

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