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How turning up the heat in my house nearly killed my family

Imagine the perfect chilly morning where your fuzziest slippers are nestled around your feet, to your right is a steaming mug of hot coffee and around your shoulders is your favorite cozy sweater. Your heater is probably softly humming in the background and maybe, just maybe — it’s also poisoning your family.

Like most normal people, I’d heard of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, but — if I’m honest to the point of embarrassing myself — I never really took it too seriously. Aside from knowing that you shouldn’t run your car in your closed garage, it never dawned on me that my family could be at risk for CO poisoning, until we were standing outside our home, in the cold, waiting for a team of technicians to figure out why our carbon monoxide alarm was on full alert.

More: Protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning

After an hour of frantic searching, they discovered the problem. The rooftop ventilation system for our heater had accidentally been blocked, probably from the careless foot of a repairman who had retiled our roof in the summer. I had no idea that as my house heated to a toasty 72 degrees; it was also filling up with deadly carbon monoxide.

That’s the thing about carbon monoxide: it’s odorless, tasteless, colorless and completely silent. Annually, it kills an estimated 430 people, and most importantly — it’s completely preventable.

Each year when the outside temps are at their lowest, people are more at risk for CO poisoning, and even death, because they are using their heaters, fireplaces, generators, even their gas stoves and gas-fueled lamps without proper ventilation, and sadly, without the assistance of a carbon monoxide detector.

More: How to select a space heater

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to those of the flu. You may feel nauseous or dizzy; have headaches and experience chest pains or shortness of breath. Heavy exposure to carbon monoxide can cause mental confusion and a loss of muscle control — and may lead to death if left untreated.

In Boston last July, a man discovered that his adult daughter and her three friends were dead from carbon monoxide poisoning because they’d used the generator in the basement, and didn’t move it outside before turning it on.

In Baltimore last April, a father and his seven children were buried after their bodies were found in a home without electricity that had been running solely off a gas-powered generator found in the house.

In 2006, two young children died on the Greek island of Corfu after sleeping in a room that had shoddy, unreliable maintenance on its heating system.

My family was lucky: We had an active, working carbon monoxide alarm that alerted us to the danger in our home. Had it not worked, our story may have been like those mentioned earlier. It scares me to think of that possibility.

More: Did carbon monoxide poisoning kill Buckwild’s Shain Gandee?

Every family should make sure where they sleep has an operating CO detector with fresh batteries that are replaced every six months. It’s such a simple, inexpensive way to ensure that your family stays safe. Whether you’re on vacation or in your own home, this alarm is an essential safeguard against carbon monoxide poisoning.

It’s also important to be smart with your home-heating appliances. Make sure fireplaces, furnaces, stoves and such are well-maintained, have proper ventilation and are being used as designed. Running a generator indoors or using gas stoves to heat your house can be deadly and is completely avoidable if used correctly.

Finally, if you think you may have been exposed to carbon monoxide, see your doctor immediately. Oxygen therapy and a simple blood test can help save you or your family’s lives.

As the weather finally cools, make sure you and your family are safe from carbon monoxide poisoning. Don’t add your name to the list of those who passed to this silent, avoidable killer.

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