UC HEALTH LINE: Temporary Heat Solutions Can Cause Serious Health Problems

CINCINNATI—In the middle of winter, a portable heater is often seen as the solution to a chilly office cubicle or a bedroom that never seems to be warm enough. But if you’re looking for a short-term warm-up, keep the risks involved in mind.   


“We see at least one fatality or near death every winter because of carbon monoxide poisoning and portable heaters,” says University Hospital emergency department physician Steve Baxter, MD.


That’s because some portable heaters emit carbon monoxide (CO), a gas that cannot be seen or smelled. When used indoors, without proper ventilation, CO becomes “the silent killer.”


While carbon monoxide poisoning is often associated with a faulty furnace or letting the car run in an enclosed garage, people should also realize that many portable heaters emit the gas as well. CO is released by any device that burns a fuel such as gasoline, kerosene, wood or propane, and when not properly ventilated can build to seriously dangerous levels for human exposure. This is not the case with electric heat.


Symptoms of CO poisoning include fatigue, dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, nausea and mental confusion. Exposure to high enough levels can cause loss of consciousness and also death.


“Use of these portable heating devices in places with poor ventilation can lead to serious consequences from CO. Unfortunately, the signs of CO poisoning are subtle initially and are often confused for the flu,” says Sean Collins, also an emergency department physician at UH and a fellow faculty member with Baxter at the University of Cincinnati’s emergency medicine department.


According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, when winter’s cold months bear down people are more apt to use portable heaters indoors, as supplemental heat or as a sole source of heat. The commission’s latest figures estimate that more than 150 people die each year from CO poisoning associated with consumer products. Although extremely high levels of CO have deadly potential for most anyone, according to the commission those most susceptible are individuals with heart disease or chronic respiratory illness, fetuses, infants and young children.  


Cautionary information:


  • Avoid using portable heaters fueled by gasoline, kerosene, wood, coal or propane indoors if at all possible. Gas generators are also not suggested for indoor use.

  • Some new models of portable heaters have safety labels, CO detection systems and automatic shutoffs.

  • Fireplaces can cause CO buildup as well. Make sure the damper is opened.


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