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Safety tips for cold weather

Photo of woman with socks and warm drink trying to warm up. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
From fire hazards to carbon monoxide poisoning precautions, there are ways to try to avoid tragedies as we all try to stay warm. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

With freezing temperatures expected across our region tonight, an expert at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) has advice regarding dangers that may be present when residents heat their homes for the first time this season.

From fire hazards to carbon monoxide poisoning precautions, there are ways to try to avoid tragedies as we all try to stay warm.

Scott Patlovich, DrPH, assistant vice president of environmental health and safety at UTHealth, offers these facts and tips.

Home-Heating Fire Facts

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 1 in 6 home fires is caused by heating equipment.

In 2016, heating equipment caused approximately:

  • 52,000 home fires
  • 490 deaths
  • 1,400 injuries
  • $1 billion in property damage

Space heaters are the type of heating equipment most often involved in home heating fires.

The leading factor in fires is placement of heating equipment too close to items such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses, or bedding.

For wood burning fireplaces or stoves, keeping a chimney clean is also extremely important to avoid the buildup of creosote, a dangerous and toxic by-product of burning fires that clings to the chimney walls and can easily catch on fire.

Home-Heating Carbon Monoxide Facts

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless, colorless gas created when fuels (such as gasoline, wood, coal, natural gas, propane, oil, and methane) burn incompletely. In the home, heating and cooking equipment that burn fuel are potential sources of carbon monoxide (CO). Generators not used in well-ventilated areas can also produce dangerous levels of CO.  Never place a generator indoors.

The dangers of CO exposure depend on a number of variables including a person’s health and activity level. Infants, pregnant women, and people with physical conditions that limit their body's ability to use oxygen (i.e. emphysema, asthma, heart disease) can be more severely affected by lower concentrations of CO than healthy adults would be. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness, an upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.

Each year, CO poisoning is responsible for more than 50,000 emergency department visits, according to the CDC.

Home-Heating Safety Tips

  • Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heating equipment, such as the furnace, fireplace, or portable heater.
  • Only use heating equipment that bears the “UL Mark,” which indicates the product has been rigorously safety tested.
  • Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified professional.
  • Turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.
  • For fuel burning space heaters, always use the proper fuel as specified by the manufacturer.
  • Make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to prevent sparks from flying into the room and burn only dry, seasoned wood. Allow ashes to cool before disposing in a metal container, which is kept a safe distance from the home.
  • Make sure all fuel-burning equipment is vented to the outside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Install and maintain carbon monoxide (CO) alarms to avoid the risk of CO poisoning.
  • Test smoke alarms at least monthly.

In addition, although we do not expect a “deep freeze” tonight or over the next few days, remember to protect your pets and plants from the cold weather. Give yourself a bit more time to warm up your vehicle and properly defrost your windshield. To defrost properly, turn the airflow on to your windshield while it is still cold so that it can gradually warm up. 

Also, even though we do not anticipate precipitation, any temperatures below freezing can potentially lead to icy roads if they are wet—so be sure to pay attention to road conditions and any indication of ice.

Media inquiries: 713-500-3030

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