Tagged Carbon Monoxide

What Families Can Learn From the Texas Storm

What Families Can Learn From the Texas Storm

Take these steps when critical services are affected by freezing temperatures.

From left, Charles Flynn, 9, Lucille Flynn, 12, and their mother, Erica Flynn, at their home in Austin, Texas, before fleeing to a hotel. The frigid temperatures caused electrical grids to fail, sending indoor temperatures plummeting. 
From left, Charles Flynn, 9, Lucille Flynn, 12, and their mother, Erica Flynn, at their home in Austin, Texas, before fleeing to a hotel. The frigid temperatures caused electrical grids to fail, sending indoor temperatures plummeting. Credit…Andrew Flynn
Christina Caron

  • Feb. 19, 2021, 1:18 p.m. ET

After days of record-breaking cold and winter storms in Texas that disrupted the electrical grid and froze water lines, millions of people are now being told to boil their water for safety.

Other families have no tap water at all. Valerie Contreras, 20, who lives in Austin, Texas, had to take shelter with her infant son at her parents’ home nearby during the storm. She said her family is melting snow in buckets to flush the toilets, and boiling snow water to wash the dishes.

She uses bottled purified water for her son’s baby formula, but is down to her last two gallons.

With critical services disrupted by severe weather, families are scrambling to navigate dangerous conditions. So we asked experts for tips on how to stay safe. Even if you haven’t yet lost drinking water or power, some of this advice might help you plan ahead in the event of a similar emergency. As climate change accelerates, more electric grids may be crippled by unexpected weather events, putting people at risk of losing power.

A weather crisis combined with the pandemic can “feel pretty hopeless and endless,” said Dr. David J. Schonfeld, the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Your goal is to be able to identify what the current situation is, figure out what’s most important for you to do at this point and be able to deal with that one issue.”

Conserve warmth and make an exit plan

When the power goes out, there are certain precautions you can take to avoid heat loss, like placing rolled-up towels at the base of exterior doors or stuffing rags in cracks under the doors. Closing curtains and blinds can also keep heat inside, according to the National Weather Service.

The service also advised that residents “move all activities to a main room and close the remaining interior doors to retain heat,” adding that people should wear layers of loosefitting and lightweight warm clothing, and have extra clothing layers handy.

Christina DiVirgilio, 36, who lives in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston, bundled her sons, 5 and 11 months, in undershirts and fleece pajamas along with gloves, hats and robes.

“They kept pretty warm for the most part,” she said.

Her youngest slept in a portable crib in Ms. Divirgilio’s walk-in closet, which turned out to be the warmest spot in the house. And because they had stocked up on batteries ahead of the storm, they were able to keep their electric fireplace going throughout the week, ensuring that temperatures in their apartment didn’t dip below 48 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you have a wood-burning fireplace, you can start a fire, provided that you have been cleaning and inspecting your chimney annually. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you take a flashlight and check that the damper or flue is open, which will draw smoke out of the house.

But if it’s very cold, sometimes it might not be safe to stay at home, especially if you have small children, who are more prone to heat loss than adults. The most fortunate will be able to flee to a home with heat by sheltering with family or friends, staying at a hotel or renting a home in a nearby area.

Ms. Contreras and her 13-month-old son quickly drove to her parents’ home because her apartment was so cold the liquid dish soap froze into a solid block, snow blew under her doorway and ice crystallized on the floor. Eventually the thermostat in her living room stopped working, displaying only the letters “Lo.”

“We just could not take the cold anymore. It was horrible,” she said. “You could literally see your breath inside my apartment.”

If you’re staying with people you don’t normally live with, ideally, everyone age 2 and older should wear a mask and try to eat in separate rooms, if possible, said Dr. Carl Baum, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and a member of the executive committee for the A.P.A.’s Council on Children and Disasters.

“You don’t want to be the next superspreader event,” he said.

Those who cannot find a place to stay can check their state’s list of warming shelters, if they are in need of power and able to travel.

Beware of carbon monoxide poisoning

When the frigid weather hit Texas this week, hundreds of people in Houston used barbecue pits or portable generators indoors, resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning, the Houston Chronicle reported on Tuesday. Many of the cases were in children.

Portable generators that run on fuel are often used to provide homes with electricity or heat during a power outage, but they can be dangerous when used improperly.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says to place these generators outdoors and away from windows, keep them dry and properly grounded and never plug them into a wall outlet or main electrical panel.

Other outdoor appliances that are powered by fossil fuels, like camping stoves, can also release carbon monoxide, and should not be used indoors.

Cars left running in a garage and malfunctioning gas stoves, gas dryers and fuel-fired furnaces can all release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.

You cannot smell or see carbon monoxide gas, not even when it builds to deadly levels. According to the Texas Poison Center Network, it is considered the leading cause of death from poisoning in the United States, which is why it’s important to also install a carbon monoxide detector in your home.

Avoid contaminated water and protect your pipes

As of Friday morning, more than 14 million people in 160 counties in Texas are facing disruptions in their water service, according to a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

If your community is under a boil water advisory, the C.D.C. says you should either use bottled water or boiled tap water for your family and your pets because your community’s water could be contaminated.

It’s not enough to pour your water through a filtered pitcher or faucet attachment. Tap water should be brought to a full rolling boil for at least 1 minute. If you live at an elevation above 6,500 feet, you should boil the water for 3 minutes before allowing it to cool, the C.D.C. says.

And if you have appliances connected to a water line, like a refrigerator, do not use the water or ice that it produces while the boil water advisory is in effect.

Rather than washing dishes, you might consider using disposable plates, cups and utensils. According to the C.D.C., household dishwashers are safe to use if the water reaches a final rinse temperature of at least 150 degrees, or if the dishwasher has a sanitizing cycle.

If you don’t have a dishwasher, you can wash and rinse the dishes like you normally would. The C.D.C. then recommends soaking the rinsed dishes in a separate basin with 1 teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach for each gallon of warm water. Let the dishes air dry completely before using again.

Babies who drink formula should be fed ready-to-use formula if possible. If you don’t have any available, try to find bottled water labeled de-ionized, purified, demineralized or distilled.

When the boil water order is lifted, residents will be asked to flush their water lines to clear plumbing of potentially contaminated water.

If you are a homeowner, you can take steps to protect your pipes from freezing. The American Red Cross recommends keeping garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage, opening kitchen and bathroom cabinets to allow warmer air to circulate around plumbing and letting cold water drip from the faucet. You can also consider installing insulating materials like a “pipe sleeve” on exposed water pipes.

If you only see a trickle of water coming out of your faucet, or none at all, your pipes may be frozen or damaged. In that case, experts recommend turning off the main water supply to the house to prevent water damage when the temperatures rise or the power comes back on.

Prepare for potential difficulties in getting food

Ideally, if you know winter weather is on the way, you’ll stock up at the grocery store ahead of time. But what if the weather takes you by surprise? Or you haven’t been venturing outside as regularly because of the pandemic?

When the power went out earlier this week, Andrew Flynn, 45, immediately booked a hotel for his wife and two kids in Austin, Texas, but then the hotel ran out of food.

On Tuesday, he said, “I spent three hours driving around central Austin yesterday and all of the grocery stores had long lines.”

He finally visited a gas station and bought non-perishables like ramen and rice so his family could make meals in their slow cooker.

His kids, 9 and 12, “haven’t loved it,” he said. But allowing them to have some candy or potato chips after their “Crock-Pot mixture” provided some incentive, he added.

If your kids are cold and cranky and you cannot give them comfort food, at some point you need to level with them in a gentle but direct way.

You can try saying: “I’m sorry, we don’t have your favorite food or even food you like at this point, but you’re going to have to eat this,” Dr. Schonfeld suggested. “Or, let’s figure out something you can eat even if it’s not particularly healthy.”

But not everyone has a car or the ability to drive around in search of food. Check to see if hunger relief organizations or food banks are providing food to people in the community and how it is being distributed. Friends might also have extra to spare.

Rawlins Gilliland, 75, who lives in Dallas, lost power for three days but his gas stove was still working so he kept himself busy making vegetable soup for his neighbors, including the large family that lives next door.

“My survival mechanism during this was that we do what we can,” he said.

His neighbors helped him out, too. When the power came back, he discovered that his heater had given out, so one of his neighbors drove more than 50 miles to get a replacement part and help him install it. The heater is working again and he’s no longer wearing his lined boots and layers of polar fleece indoors. “Right now, I feel extremely excited because things are under control here,” he said on Friday. “I wish people really did realize that collectively that we’re all in these things together.”

There’s No Better Time to Clear the Air

Think about the phrase “air pollution.” Are you picturing black plumes curling out of factory smokestacks and the tailpipes of idling vehicles? Something to worry about outdoors, that is, not inside your home? Not so fast: Air pollutants could be within your own walls too, seeping from your furnace, your basement, even that new couch, and their threats range from eye irritation to an increased risk of cancer, and maybe even death.

Don’t panic (really). Once you recognize the threats, you can often clean up the air in your home without too much trouble. And as we head into a winter where the pandemic may force us to be at home more than ever, now is a good time to make sure your everyday air is as clean as possible. Here are some of the most common indoor air concerns — and how to deal with them.

Radon

In vast swathes of the country, everyday rocks like granite and shale hold deposits of uranium, thorium and radium under the soil. These deposits silently decay into radon, an odorless gas that can seep into homes via minuscule cracks in foundations and floors. Inhaling it (technically, inhaling the radioactive particles that radon produces in the decay process) damages the lungs. After smoking cigarettes, radon exposure is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

Homes in some parts of the country, like the Rocky Mountain West, the Midwest and the Appalachians, have a particularly high risk of radon problems from the underlying geology. But because of quirks in minerals and soils nationwide, “radon is everywhere,” said Bruce Snead, director of the National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University. “The only way to know the level anywhere is to test for it.”

Fortunately, that’s not hard to do: Start with a short-term test, available at hardware and home-improvement stores, which takes three to seven days and provides a snapshot of fluctuating radon levels. You want an average of less than 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), which is 10 times the average outdoor background radon. If the first test comes in higher than that, it’s time to look into mitigation. If not, it’s still worth following up with a long-term test (90 days to one year) to make sure you’re in the safe zone over time.

Worrisome levels of radon should be dealt with swiftly by calling a mitigation professional. Depending on your home style and the soil underneath it, a pro will install some kind of underground suction-and-fan system to suck radon away from your home, and vent it to be diffused in the outdoor air. Costs range from $750 to $4,000, Snead said, and “99 percent of the time will get the house down below 4 pCi/L, and many times below 2 pCi/L.”

Mold

First, the bad news: There’s definitely mold in your living space. Mold, an umbrella term for a variety of fungi, lives everywhere, and you can’t get rid of it. The good news is that it won’t mushroom up to problem levels without moisture, and that you can control.

The biggest issue with out-of-control growth is that mold shoots invisible allergens into the air, causing sniffling, wheezing, eye irritation or rashes in many people. Mold poses even more risk for those with underlying conditions, triggering asthma attacks, exacerbating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and sometimes causing fungal infections in immunocompromised individuals.

If you have a mold infestation, you probably already know it. “If you can see it or you can smell it, you’ve got a problem,” said Scott Damon, health communication lead for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s asthma and community health branch. The only solution is prompt cleanup, a task you can probably handle yourself in small areas (10 feet square or less) but one that will demand professional help for larger ones. Carefully check references if you do hire a contractor, as scammers sometimes claim they can fix mold problems.

It’s much better to keep mold at bay in the first place by finding and fixing leaks and minimizing dampness. Often the problem is “a leaky roof or window, or a broken pipe,” Damon said. “But it can also be high humidity — use a dehumidifier to bring down that humidity level. And it’s important that you ventilate the more humid parts of your house, like the bathroom, laundry and cooking areas.” Flip on exhaust fans while showering, cooking or running the dishwasher, and make sure your clothes dryer vents outside.

Carbon monoxide

This one’s the killer. Carbon monoxide, an odorless gas produced by burning fuel (including gasoline, wood and propane), can build up in your bloodstream, choking out oxygen in red blood cells. The gas sends more than 20,000 Americans to the E.R. every year. First, it causes nausea, dizziness and confusion, then without a quick infusion of fresh air, carbon monoxide will make you lose consciousness or worse. It can be fatal in just a few minutes with higher concentrations, and a few hours with lower ones.

Risks increase in the winter in colder climates. The biggest culprits are malfunctioning heating systems, such as furnaces, gas water heaters and gas dryers, Damon said. “You should have someone check your heating system — anything that burns gas, oil or coal — every year,” he advised. And don’t warm up your car inside an attached garage, even with the garage door open.

It’s important that you have at least one carbon monoxide detector installed near your bedroom, so it’ll wake you up if the gas builds up in your sleep. Check and replace the batteries at least twice a year. Do it now, while you’re thinking about it.

Volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s)

A slew of different chemicals fall into the catchall term V.O.C.s (including formaldehyde and benzene), and because they’re found in thousands of different products, from paint to carpeting to furniture to glue, it’s likely that some are off-gassing into your home’s air right now. Short-term, inhaling high levels of them can cause eye and throat irritation, nausea, headaches and dizziness; long-term, it’s linked to cancer and damage to the nervous system, liver and kidneys.

One of the biggest sources of formaldehyde in particular is new building materials, said Dr. Arthur Chang, chief medical officer for the C.D.C.’s division of environmental health science and practice. New particleboard, plywood, adhesives, paints, varnishes and carpeting are all common offenders. If you’re not living in a brand-new house, you can still be exposed by painting or renovation projects, new furniture, and some household cleaners, disinfectants and cosmetics, among other things.

One of the best defenses is to keep levels low in the first place by looking for “low- or no-V.O.C.” or “low formaldehyde” labels when shopping for paint, couches, mattresses and wood products (also check ingredient lists for “urea,” and avoid those products). If a new purchase has that sickly chemical smell, put it in a garage or on a patio to let it off-gas for a few days; wash new drapes before hanging them. Some V.O.C.s are water soluble, so humid air will speed off-gassing; a dehumidifier can help tamp things down.

Ventilation is essential: If you’re painting, cleaning, or doing other home projects, make sure the space gets plenty of outside air. Live in a cold climate? Now might not be the best time for major remodeling work — save it until you can easily keep your windows open for several hours.

The common defense: fresh air

Speaking of ventilation, you may have noticed that all of the above pollutants have something in common. Namely, we can mitigate them with a good influx of fresh outdoor air to prevent the nasty stuff from building up.

The newer your living space, the “tighter” it probably is — that is, the fewer cracks and holes there are to let outdoor air seep in. This is a good thing for energy efficiency, but it also increases the risk of pollutants hanging around in your indoor air. A whole-house ventilation system is an effective way to swap indoor and outdoor air without losing too much heat in the process, but they can cost up to a few thousand dollars and don’t work well with all homes.

The simpler answer: “Increase fresh air exchange whatever way you can,” Dr. Chang said. “If it’s feasible, open the windows, even for a short amount of time.” Adding a few gusts of outdoor air every day will dilute any air pollutant in your home and is an easy, effective step to take during the long indoor season to come.