In past years Marshall Municipal Utilities has presented seminars which included discussions about the importance of current knowledge concerning our usage and consumption of energy in our lives. Methods to accomplish decreased energy usage with an increase in conservation of our energy sources were emphasized in addition to the availability of financial incentives for the use of energy-efficient devices. Interestingly, several aspects of the presented information and the audience's questions had medical implications for those of us preparing for the upcoming winter and related energy (heating) considerations.
The ever accumulating leaves and the falling temperatures in our area give us a warning of the imminent winter season. Although we all enjoy the autumn weather and related activities, it's but a short time until cold temperatures, snow, ice, and the need for heating our homes. In spite of the fact that electric heating is becoming more common in this area, most of us still use fossil fuels (natural gas, oil, wood) to heat our homes. These relatively efficient sources of heat may also produce dangerous, severe, and harmful effects to our bodies, and they can stimulate the development of an unhealthy personal environment. Recent home energy conservation methods and augmented insulation procedures have resulted in "tighter" and less ventilated buildings.
A rare but deadly complication of home heating can be increased levels of carbon monoxide (CO), a dangerous gas produced by the combustion of fossil fuels. It is deadly even in small concentrations and is the cause of many deaths, accidental and suicidal. Following the introduction of home smoke alarms in most homes, it was a natural progression to the instillation of CO monitors. (Modern devices now monitor/alarm smoke, fire, CO, and natural gas.) Most smoke alarms can function for several years providing the batteries are appropriately replaced. We are thus reminded to change the batteries in smoke alarms and other monitoring devices when setting our clocks BACK in the fall, which we shall accomplish at the beginning of next month.
CO is an invisible, odorless gas which can be released into our living environments. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, it is the leading cause of accidental poisoning in the United States, resulting in an estimated 80-200 deaths each year. Exposure to increasing levels of CO can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of consciousness, and possibly death. Should you or any members of your household experience these symptoms, evacuate your home immediately and have a HVAC professional check the air in the home. CO detectors are the only way to detect dangerous levels of CO in the home or workplace, and monitors are recommended for every floor in a dwelling. Problems related to CO can be prevented by routine evaluations of your heating source and maintaining a source of outside air be supplied to your furnace. Additionally, one should check the chimney and/or exhaust system of your furnace to ensure appropriate outside egress of combusted materials. For additional information about furnace safety, CO monitors, smoke detectors and other home safety equipment, consult your HVAC contractor and/or fire department personnel. Consumer Reports magazine, available at our local Marshall-Lyon County Library, is an excellent source of information about the devices, the operation and value of the brands of these devices.
In addition to concern about these home monitors, remember to have the source of your home heating (and possible Carbon Monoxide) inspected before you begin heating your home this fall. Most cases of CO poisoning known to me have have been caused by malfunctioning furnaces and/or chimneys. Replace your furnace filters monthly or as directed by your HVAC consultant.
A much more common health problem present in our homes in winter is the condition of low humidity. This condition produces the dry upper airway passages, "runny nose," "congestion," static electricity, and the electric "shocks we feel when walking across the rugs we experience in the winter months. Heated air holds less water than cooler air; a humidifier should be used in every home to keep the home humidity level about 40 percent by replacing water into the air. Cool mist floor model humidifiers are recommended; hot water "vaporizers" are no longer used and can be dangerous and a source of infection. Humidified air also gives an increased feeling of warmth at lower ambient temperatures. Using a programmable thermostat will maintain a comfortable temperature throughout the day and night, direct your furnace to use less fuel, and provide significant cost savings (approximately $180/year).
Protect the health of yourself, your family, and your home by using appropriate preventive measures and common sense during the heating season and in all aspects of your life!