Poison Center Pointers: Preparing for Winter

Our panel of poison experts takes a look in the garage (and beyond) to uncover common winter poisons, such as antifreeze, ice melt and carbon monoxide.


Disclaimer: Poison Center Pointers is brought to you by the Northern New England Poison Center. This podcast is not to replace timely advice or recommendations. If you have an actual poisoning emergency, scenario, or question, contact the Northern New England Poison Center by calling 1-800-222-1222, text the word poison to 85511, or chat online at nnepc.org.

Welcome to Poison Center Pointers: a podcast presented to you by the Northern New England Poison Center.

Chris: No improvising, you’re saying? 

Karlee: No, do.

Chris: Okay, well what if I mentioned the fact that I walked outside of my house this morning to find that I could see my breath? I got to my car and it took roughly 10 minutes to defrost my windshield before I could get here. 

Karlee: You don’t just take your ice scraper and do a tiny hole so you can see?

Carolyn: Right. That’s what I see people on the road doing.

Chris: I haven’t felt my fingertips in about three weeks now.

Carolyn: Chris is from a warmer climate.

Chris: If you consider Philadelphia warm? Sure. 

Carolyn: Compared to Maine? Yes, yes I do. 

Chris: Hi guys. Welcome back to Poison Center Pointers. My name’s Chris. I’m here with Carolyn and Karlee. We just alluded to what we want to talk about today: preparing for winter. It’s getting frigid out there.

So just a quick reminder of what we like to do here at Poison Center Pointers—we’re here to share knowledge and experience dealing with everyday situations we help manage at the poison center. Our goal is to keep our community safe by preventing poisoning and make sure you know what to do if one occurs.

So, it’s getting cold out. We gotta set up shop so that we’re ready for four to five to seven months of cold here. 

Carolyn: At least.

Chris: We find ourselves in the garage. What commonly encountered and super toxic chemical could there be in the garage?

Carolyn: Well, number one on the list is probably antifreeze, and it’s certainly one we get a lot of calls on, actually year round, but particularly right now. Could be because people are getting their cars ready for the winter.

Chris: What particular types of antifreeze do we worry about?

Carolyn: Well, the two most poisonous ones would be windshield washer fluid, which contains methanol and radiator antifreeze, which contains ethylene glycol. Both of these are very poisonous and if any amount is ingested, you need to call. And a lot of things we talk about here at the poison center, we were talking about sort of children getting into them; this one is one we see adults getting into as well, and—even though it’s accidental. For example, you’re working on a car and the radiator antifreeze or the windshield washer goes—sprays into your mouth. And that’s worth a call here, actually. 

Karlee: More common than you think. I’ve gotten that call many times.

Carolyn: Right, right. 

Chris: Something else about these chemicals: the way they taste.

Karlee: Very sweet. 

Chris: Yeah, yeah. 

Karlee: Believe it or not—don’t taste it though.

Chris: So what else could we worry about then? 

Karlee: Pets. So especially, you know, kids and pets, certainly if something’s sweet they’ll continue to drink it if they have access to it.

Carolyn: Right.

Karlee: But even as Carolyn was saying, a very small amount can be toxic in the antifreezes that contained the toxic chemicals. It can even cause blindness or kidney injury so we really do worry about any exposures.

Carolyn: Right. And even if it’s some just spilled on the ground on the floor of your garage or on the driveway. As Karlee was just mentioning, pets especially. They’ll lick it up because it does taste good, and so it’s actually quite poisonous and we’re very careful with it.

Chris: Yeah, so our threshold is low. If you think it’s an exposure to something like that please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

Something a little bit more festive, especially this time of year, surprisingly could contain similar chemicals: snow globes. 

Karlee: Uh huh, fun fact, yeah.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, we did a little bit of reading—research here. There was a study done by the Florida Poison Information Center where they called around to manufacturers of snow globes, and four out of 11—this is back in 2007—reported that they use lower concentrations of ethylene glycol, which is what we find in radiator cooler.

Carolyn: Radiator, right.

Karlee: Good to note. The way, though, that we’re exposed to snow gloves, if you think about it, it will break open on the floor, so limiting the exposure. But just think about pets who might lap up spills.

Carolyn: Right, yeah, and you know it’s just interesting because it’s a type of product you wouldn’t expect to have something poisonous in it, but sometimes that is the case. And just to go back around to antifreeze or the radiator and windshield washer fluid for just a second…

Karlee: We got stuck on snow globes.

Carolyn: Snow globes, yeah we were a little stuck in there for a bit. Everyone was gazing into the snow globe… But with the antifreeze that is poisonous, there are different percentages in different products, so it is helpful when you do call if you have the actual container—you can let us know what it is and we can see what percentage of antifreeze is in there.

Chris: Sure. Something else we might find in the garage, or if you find yourself tinkering with some of your smaller engine products: siphoning this time of year. Why do we run into a lot of calls with siphoning?

Karlee: Yeah, very common right now, especially when people are putting away the lawn mower, getting out the snow blower, getting out the snow sled, and if you…

Carolyn: Snow sled? Wait. Sleds don’t have engines.

Karlee: What?

Chris: Snowmobiles. It’s a snowmobile.

Carolyn: Oh! Yeah, snowmobile.

Karlee: Well, snow sled.

Chris: Continue.

Carolyn: All right, you’re from Maine. We’ll let you go ahead.

Karlee: Anywho, so siphoning—if you don’t know what it is, good, because we don’t recommend it, but it’s essentially when you’re trying to move gas from one machine to the other and you’re using your mouth as reverse suction, so as you can probably imagine, that’s where you get an exposure, is the gas can go in your mouth.

Carolyn: Right, and it’s, you know, you can swallow some, but you can also choke on it. And if it gets into your lungs, that’s actually quite poisonous. Even a very small amount can cause, basically it’s a chemical pneumonia—we call it aspiration pneumonitis—and that actually requires treatment, so any amount even, like I said, even if it’s really small, we’re very careful with it.

Chris: Say you’re out there siphoning, or a family member is siphoning, and they immediately, you hear him start coughing up, anything like that. They think it might have gone down the wrong pipe. That’s really where we start to worry, so please don’t hesitate to give us a ring in that scenario.

Carolyn: And sometimes the effects are delayed, so that’s why if you talk to us, we can let you know exactly what to look for.

Chris: Maybe moving a little bit outside of the garage.

Carolyn: Sure, let’s go out of the garage.

Chris: Still something we all need this time of year…

Karlee: Take a stroll on the slippery ice.

Chris: That’s right… rock salt or ice melts, quite a few different names for it. Get a lot of calls this time of year, huh? 

Carolyn: Right, yeah, absolutely, it should be starting soon. I feel like we haven’t had a lot yet, but we will. 

Chris: I had one three days ago.

Carolyn: You did?! Oh my gosh.

Chris: It feels like winter.

Carolyn: Wow.

Karlee: First one of the season!

Chris: Yup, first one of the season.

Carolyn: I have seen ice, but not covering the steps, but, we do have to be careful with it. It does contain—actually several different types of formulations. Most of them are a type of salt, which people think, “Oh, it’s just salt,” but actually salt—several different types of salts can be a problem, depending on the amount. Like we always say, dose makes the poison, right? But so we have to be very careful with it, and kids get into it. Not usually because they’re grabbing the container. It’s actually often more accidental. For example, a child puts their mittens along the railing or along the steps to touch the snow, and now they have a piece of it on their mitten, and now they suck on it ’cause that’s what kids do sometimes, and it tastes kind of good.

Karlee: Yeah, certainly. And people could track it in on their shoes or boots or what have you inside. And then kiddos who are crawling/walking around can pick it up and put it in their mouth.

Carolyn: Right, and pets, too, get into it. So yeah.

Chris: Absolutely. Generally, a taste ingestion isn’t going to be too much of a problem, more than happy to talk about that, but larger amounts, we can run into some issues.

Carolyn: So just be careful.

Chris: Staying outside—so you get that big first storm and you’re getting, you know, it’s that first nor’easter and you’re going to get 12 to 18 inches of snow and you want to go play outside with family or kids. 

Carolyn: Woohoo! Yes, I do!

Chris: Yes. Snowball fight. What’s something we commonly encounter that people use to stay warm in that sort of scenario?

Karlee: Yeah, hand warmers!

Carolyn: That’s what I think he’s talking about, Karlee.

Karlee: Yeah, I think so too. Or you know if you want to go to a Patriots game in December or January—put them in your boots.

Carolyn: Yeah, absolutely. Toe warmers.

Karlee: You won’t be disappointed.

Chris: I can’t escape the Patriots.

Carolyn: Excuse me? Is there a problem here, Chris?

Chris: Super Bowl, I believe it was LII, the final score was 38-33.

Karlee: You’re fired.

Carolyn: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Chris: Philadelphia Eagles.

Karlee: Get outta here!

Carolyn: Don’t worry folks, Chris will not be joining us after today’s episode.

Chris: We don’t have enough time to discuss that, but with hand warmers in particular, there is kind of an interesting chemical inside it that we worry about. What’s that?

Karlee: Iron. Yeah, it’s interesting. So the way that hand warmers work is there is iron in there, which when exposed to oxygen forms essentially a reaction that will form heat as a byproduct and that’s why it gets warm, but it will also produce rust. And rust is actually non-toxic. So depending on when someone gets into something, if it’s a brand new hand warmer the iron could be very, you know, potentially toxic depending, especially if it’s a pet. But if it’s after the hand warmer is used, it is essentially a lot less toxic.

Chris: But if it is pre-use, say you walk downstairs and you find your kids covered in all these black little granules or powder all over their face or the dog chewed up a whole bunch of packets.

Carolyn: Right. Yeah, definitely can be an issue and you probably heard of iron more with vitamins, right? But it is found in these products, as well, so you know—keep an eye on them.

Chris: I know you’re trying to stay warm, but we’re also trying to stay careful, right? 

Carolyn: Careful, yes.

Chris: One of the biggest parts of preparing for winter, right? As I already alluded to: those storms coming through. And what do we worry about with storms? 

All: Losing power! 

Chris: If you’re not fortunate enough to have a generator, which I am not.

Carolyn: We don’t—me either.

Karlee: Me either.

Carolyn: Sad.

Chris: Two kinds of categories of calls that we get very commonly in this scenario: the first being potential for food poisoning, right? What’s the context of that?

Karlee: It’s really, you know, when the power goes out, your fridge is not working, and so we’ll get a lot of calls to say, “Well, how long is the food in my fridge good? The food in my freezer? Can I eat it? What if I opened the door?” There’s just lots of different potential questions of your food going bad in this situation.

Carolyn: The most important thing is keeping the doors closed, actually.

Karlee: Exactly.

Carolyn: It stays cold longer.

Chris: I’ll go ahead and plug another website: foodsafety.gov. Actually, this is through the CDC. They have a nice little infographic which has information on what to do before the storm’s coming. Importantly, if you have lost power, you don’t know if something safe to eat, as Carolyn just said: keep the doors closed—food in the refrigerator is only good for four hours after losing power, food in a full freezer is good for two days, and food in a half-full freezer is generally good for about 24 hours. And a lot of times we’ll get calls after power is restored and they’ve got some tasty treats in the refrigerator that they want to know if they can still eat it or if they gotta throw it in the trash. What’s our mantra for that sort of scenario?

Karlee: When in doubt, throw it out.

Chris: That’s right. 

Carolyn: Yeah, we can’t determine, you know, if it’s going to be good or bad—unless it’s obviously stinky.

Chris: Yeah, you got salmon that’s been there for four days. 

Carolyn: Ew. We can’t predict, so if you think it’s not good, then don’t eat it.

Chris: When in doubt…

All: Throw it out. 

Carolyn: Yeah, that’s a good one. Did you get that off your fancy infographic?

Chris: Yes, yes I did, I stole that. I didn’t come up with that.

Carolyn: It’s just a fancy brochure.

Chris: The other piece is one that we do get a lot of calls on, and can be very concerning: carbon monoxide, right? Or CO.

Carolyn: Carbon monoxide is really poisonous. It’s a deadly gas and we get a lot of calls about it in the winter. It’s CO or carbon monoxide, and it’s produced in many different ways, and we’re going to talk more about that in a minute, but I just want to say for today we’re very concerned with power outages with generators being too close to a house, even too close to the windows outside, and we’re also concerned about people bringing grills into the garage, for example. Even if the garage door’s open that’s not enough ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. And it’s colorless. It’s odorless. You cannot tell, unless you have a carbon monoxide monitor. So that is a big point for today is make sure that you have a monitor.

Chris: Make sure the batteries are checked on that monitor. 

Carolyn: Yes.

Chris: It is a very important topic that we have here in the poison center, so much so that we were going to dedicate our next episode in January just to carbon monoxide. And I think we have a little special guest, right? 

Carolyn: Yes, we do.

Karlee: We will have one of our toxicologists on to discuss a lot of different information that’s so important about carbon monoxide: how it works, why we’re concerned, how to keep yourself safe, that sort of thing.

Carolyn: And why the Patriots are better than the Eagles.

Karlee: Yes… He’s speechless.

Carolyn: See, there you go.

Chris: Yeah. Trying to come up with comebacks for seven Super Bowls in 20 years.

Carolyn: No can do. 

Chris: There’s only so much you can do.

Carolyn: Exactly, no.

Chris: So transitioning from that—again, another plug for the CDC. They actually have online an entire section of their website that is dedicated to natural disasters and severe weather, and under that they have the website just for preparing for winter storm with some general tips, right? Checking the batteries in your smoke and CO detectors, as we just said, before winter, having your chimney and flue inspected, making sure that your wood stove or fireplace has proper ventilation, and having emergency kits with supplies in your house and in your car. So, just so everyone’s aware: Karlee, Carolyn, do you still come to work when you get a big snowstorm or do you like to have a snow day? 

Carolyn: Well, because I’m so old I don’t have to drive in the snow, right, Chris? Just kidding. 

Karlee: No, we are here 24/7/365. All amounts of snow.

Carolyn: If we have a big huge storm coming, then somebody will actually stay here overnight, even if they’re not on the phone so that they can be prepared to take over in the morning.

Chris: Yeah, just a little humblebrag there. That’s how dedicated we are to the residents of Northern New England.

Carolyn: To be fair, I’ve never spent the night. That’s because I can drive in snow.

Karlee: There ya go.

Chris: So we wanted to thank everyone for listening again to this episode of Poison Center Pointers. Again, as always, you can like, share, and subscribe to us on Facebook and Twitter, and visit our website at nnepc.org. Remember though, if you have an actual poisoning emergency, scenario, and even just a question, contact the Northern New England Poison Center by calling 1-800-222-1222, you can text the word poison to 85511, and chat online at NNEPC.org. I think we just wanted to say happy holiday season to everyone.

Carolyn: That’s right. Happy holidays, yes.

Chris: Stay warm. Bundle up.

Carolyn: Stay safe.

Karlee: It’s getting cold out there, bub… yikes.

Carolyn: Bye everybody.

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