HEATING SEASON calls for taking some precautions -- making sure your furnace is operating and vented properly, and keeping your home warm enough to prevent hypothermia, especially if you're elderly, poor or chronically ill.
This year, with rising fuel costs and cutbacks in government fuel assistance, these precautions take on a special urgency.
The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning rises as soon as furnaces begin to click on. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced as fuel burns. When there's carbon monoxide in the air you breathe, it competes with the oxygen that the body's red blood cells must absorb from the lungs. And because the red cells take up carbon monoxide far more readily, it eventually replaces oxygen, starving the brain and other organs.
Last year, about 600 Americans died at home from "gas and vapor" poisonings, most being carbon monoxide poisonings, according to the National Safety Council.
Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can build up in a number of ways. Faulty furnaces and water heaters, clogged chimney flues, gas stoves or ovens used for heat, charcoal burned indoors and unvented gas or kerosene space heaters all can cause trouble, especially when windows and doors are kept tightly shut.
So can running a car in a closed garage. If the garage is attached to the house, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can seep into the house.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, nausea, red skin, sleepiness, confusion and ringing in the ears.
Every central heating system should be inspected and tuned up at the start of the heating season, and the flues should be cleaned. The current surge in conversions from oil to gas heat makes that especially important.
The problem with switching from oil to gas is that years of burning oil will line a chimney flue with soot, and a switch to gas, which produces wetter, more acidic emissions, can loosen it. If the loosened soot clogs the furnace chimney, carbon monoxide can pour into the basement.
Once you've made sure that your heating system is in good repair, make certain, especially if you're particularly vulnerable to the cold, that you keep your home warm enough for safety.
If you're elderly, have health conditions that impair your circulation or mobility, if you take certain medications, drink alcohol or are poorly nourished, you may have difficulty maintaining your body temperature, and keeping your home too cool can be dangerous, according to the National Institute on Aging.
No one knows precisely what temperature is needed indoors to keep elderly and other cold-vulnerable people safe, but the institute suggests 65 degrees. The American Association of Retired Persons suggests keeping rooms at 65 to 70 degrees.
Sleeping with plenty of blankets and perhaps even a hat, wearing layers of warm clothes, staying active, eating well, avoiding alcohol and, if you live alone, asking someone to check in on you when it's very cold outside can help prevent hypothermia.
If you take tranquilizers or anti-depressant medications, ask your doctor if they might affect your body's ability to maintain a normal temperature.
Hypothermia, or low body temperature, occurs when a person's temperature falls below 96 degrees. Symptoms include slurred speech, sluggishness, drowsiness, confusion and slow breathing. If someone you know shows these signs, cover the person with extra clothes or blankets and get emergency medical help immediately. Don't rub the person's skin. Treatment consists of controlled, medically supervised warming.
For a copy of a free brochure, "A Winter Hazard for the Old: Accidental Hypothermia," write to the National Institute on Aging, Box HYPO, Building 31, Room 5C35, Bethesda, Md. 20892.