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Heating may be essential during the winter, but it can also be a health hazard. What risk does the type of heating you use in your home pose, and what can you do about it?

Winter will officially start this month in northern-hemisphere countries, and that means we all spend around 90 percent of our time indoors — at work, school, shopping malls, in cars, and mostly at home. Most of us have already started heating our homes.

You may feel nice and toasty, but your source of heating may be harming your health, either directly or by circulating indoor pollution around all your rooms. How can you improve your air quality?

Risks Of Gas Heaters

Gas heaters are a reliable source of heat, but they do require responsible care to avoid high levels of carbon monoxide in your home. Gas heaters should always be installed by a professional, and serviced regularly — ideally, every year before the heating season starts, but at least every two years. You should always contact your service immediately if the following red flags show up:

  • The flames on your heater are orange instead of blue.

  • You smell gas.

  • You or other people living in your home have headaches, chest pain, shortness of breath, or are often nauseous. These symptoms should disappear when you are not at home.

Families heating their home with gas should always ventilate properly, by opening windows and doors regularly, or having window fans installed. You can often partially clean your gas heater by taking it apart and vacuum cleaning the inside, but you obviously need to turn the gas off and make sure the section containing the flames is sealed off properly once you are done.

Chimneys should be serviced regularly as well, preferably by a professional. Very high levels of carbon monoxide can quickly become fatal. If you feel you have a special reason to be concerned about the levels of carbon monoxide in your house, you can also obtain a carbon monoxide detector.

Note that unflued gas heaters pose additional risk. They emit toxic gases that accumulate very quickly unless your room is ventilated really well — in which case you'd be cold, so that defeats the whole object of heating. Basically, avoid unflued gas heaters.

Safely Using Wood Fire

Do you just love that cozy fireplace and choose to use it as an addition source of heating? Or do you rely on wood burning as your main heating? Using your fireplace properly and having your chimney serviced regularly still won't prevent you from breathing in some harmful substances, unfortunately.

Wood that isn't burned properly, wood previously treated with chemicals, and placing items like newspapers in your fireplace can all contribute to the presence of hazardous toxins in the air you breathe. Ash, or its fancy name “particle pollution”, is another health hazard. Children, elderly people, and those with asthma are especially sensitive and may develop respiratory problems.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actually recommends replacing wood stoves and fireplaces with “cleaner and more efficient heating alternatives such as gas, oil, propane, or electric heat”. If you don't want to say goodbye to your beloved fireplace, do make sure that the wood you burn is clean and dry. If your fireplace is old and dirty, you should also think about replacing it with a newer, EPA-certified fireplace. Such a new fireplace is also very likely to be more energy-efficient.

As with every form of heating, families using wood burning to keep their homes heated should make proper ventilation a priority, have their stoves and fireplaces serviced yearly and their chimneys cleaned regularly.

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