Over the winter months most households use items like wheat packs, hot water bottles, electric blankets and heaters. While it is important to ensure your family is kept warm to maintain their health and protect them from serious conditions; if these items are used incorrectly or when faulty, they can be dangerous.
Winter products are often recalled when they present a danger to the public. Stay up to date with Australian product safety recalls via the Product Safety Australia website and follow our winter safety tips to keep your family well this winter.
When used incorrectly, electric blankets present a serious fire risk. Make sure you follow these tips to ensure your family are using electric blankets correctly.
- Be aware that electric blankets can overheat, cause an electric shock or spark and start a fire. Make sure you only use electric blankets to warm the bed—switch them off before getting in.
- Do not place heavy objects on the bed when the blanket is turned on.
- Replace electric blankets at least every 10 years—or sooner if showing signs of wear.
- Always store electric blankets by hanging or rolling them. Folding can damage the heating wires and increase the risk of electrical faults and therefore, increase the fire risk.
Hot water bottles and heat packs
Hot water bottles and heat packs both pose a burns risk when used incorrectly.
Use them safely by:
- Throwing hot water bottles out when they show signs of wear and tear like cracks in the rubber. The rubber can perish from the inside so they should be replaced every two years—or sooner if signs of wear are evident.
- Fill hot water bottles with warm, not boiling, water and shield them with a towel or fabric cover to ensure they do not have direct contact with the skin.
- Wheat packs should not be heated for longer than recommended on the label or packaging as they can ignite and start a fire, even some time after being removed from the microwave.
Fires and heaters
Keeping your house warm over winter is an important part of protecting your family from illnesses like the flu. However, it is important to ensure that you do not take risks with the equipment you use and make sure your family, particularly children, know how to be safe near heaters and fires.
Keep these tips in mind no matter how you heat your house:
- Do not place heaters close to furniture or leave clothes on them
- Winter pyjamas are often made from highly flammable synthetic materials, even those with a low fire danger rating. Anyone wearing pyjamas, especially children, should keep away from open heat sources like fireplaces and gas stove tops.
- Don’t leave portable heaters in places where people or pets could knock them over.
- Poorly operated or inefficient wood heaters can contribute to poor air quality. This could potentially impact your health and that of your neighbours’ health. The wood smoke can also be a significant nuisance to your local environment. For tips on how to use your solid fuel heater correctly visit www.epa.sa.gov.au.
- Always check your heater is working correctly and service it.
- Gas heaters should be serviced by a licensed gas fitter and according to the manufacturer's instructions. If you have difficulty lighting your heater, can see yellow flames or there is an unusual smell or noise coming from the heater, it could be an indication that the heater might be dangerous.
- Electric heaters should be checked for obvious damage such as rust (especially on older heaters) and the power cord should also be checked for any damage. An electrician or service technician should do any repairs.
For more information about using electricity and gas safely visit Using electricity and gas safely.
Gas heaters, heat beads, barbecue coals and briquette heaters – a carbon monoxide poisoning risk
Combustion produces carbon monoxide which can cause death very rapidly if breathed in. Use of unflued gas heaters, charcoal, BBQs and outdoor heaters in enclosed spaces have led to carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you are using a gas heater to escape the chill, ensure that you are aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Every year people present to emergency departments in SA with carbon monoxide-related conditions as people begin using gas appliances, such as unflued gas heaters, or those who have used outdoor heaters inside or in an enclosed space. Do not use outside cooking appliances and heaters such as ‘heat beads’ indoors (including in sheds) as they release carbon monoxide.
Carbon monoxide is a ‘silent killer’—it has no smell, taste or colour, meaning it is difficult to detect. The gas can build up in unventilated rooms and people can inhale it without realising, so it is important to make sure that there is adequate ventilation with fresh air.
People need to be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms including:
- persistent tiredness
- shortness of breath
- loss of consciousness.
Unflued gas heaters also emit other pollutants which can cause respiratory infections, exacerbate asthma symptoms and increase coughing and wheezing. Never use an unflued gas heater in a bedroom, bathroom or other small rooms with no permanent ventilation (such as an open window) because harmful toxic gases can build up inside.
Babies and young children, pregnant women, the elderly and immobile and those with respiratory problems are most vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Regular maintenance of appliances is critical to avoid the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, ensure all gas appliances are serviced by a licensed gasfitter at the manufacturer recommended service intervals or at least once every two years.
Anyone experiencing symptoms should visit the Healthdirect webpage or visit their GP to seek assistance. In the case of emergency, always dial triple zero (000).
For more information about ventilation and carbon monoxide risks visit Using electricity and gas safely.
When using a solid fuel heater such as a wood fire to heat your home keep the following in mind.
- Both open and closed fires present a burns risk.
- Make sure children are well supervised near fires and ensure anyone wearing synthetic materials stays away from naked flames.
- Rooms should be well ventilated and flues well maintained to reduce the risk of smoke inhalation.
- Always place a screen in front of a fireplace when it’s being used.
- Never burn rubbish such as plastics foam or wood that is painted or treated.
- Install smoke alarms throughout your home and test them monthly. Change the batteries every year.
- Where possible, make sure you and your family know more than one safe way out of every room in your home.
- Store matches and lighters in a safe place, out of reach of young children.
- Ensure that you are aware of how to treat burns. More information available on Health Direct.
For more information about fire and heater safety visit the Metropolitan Fire Service website at: www.mfs.sa.gov.au.
Heating our houses while the air carries more moisture over the winter season can often result in increased mould growth. Steps should be taken by households to limit this and make sure that respiratory conditions are not exacerbated.
The most common types of moulds are not hazardous to humans, however some moulds which may be found inside your home may cause health problems. This will depend on:
- the type of mould
- exposure time
- your general health.
Some moulds may:
- trigger allergic reactions (for instance asthma or hay fever) when spores are inhaled, (often caused through direct handling of mouldy materials) or through accidental ingestion.
- cause symptoms from coughs, congestion, a runny nose, eye
irritation, headache to skin irritation.
- cause more serious health effects such as fevers and breathing problems in people who are immuno-compromised or suffer from respiratory diseases.
Find out more about household mould.
The best way to ensure safety during a winter blackout is to be prepared and be aware of the risks associated with having reduced access to power.
- Be very careful using open flames for light as they can easily present a fire risk if knocked over or dropped. Do not leave lit candles burning in unoccupied rooms or when you go out.
- Keep freezers and refrigerators closed.
- Only use generators outdoors and away from windows.
- Do not use a gas stove to heat your home.
- Disconnect appliances and electronics to avoid damage from electrical surges.
- Have alternate plans for refrigerating medicines or using power-dependent medical devices.
- If safe, go to an alternate location for heat or cooling.
For information about food safety during and after a blackout visit Food safety in an emergency.
Protecting the vulnerable
- Check on elderly family and neighbours often and ensure they have access to cheap, effective and safe heating.
- Educate children about burn safety and ensure they are well supervised around heaters and fires.
- If you or someone in your family has a chronic condition, make sure you consult your doctor about precautions they should take to stay safe and ensure that their condition is not exacerbated by the heating mechanism being used.
- Are you eligible for an energy bill or Medical heating and cooling concession?
Cough and cold medications
- This time of year you are likely to have larger quantities of coughand cold medicines that may be located in more accessible spots because they are being used frequently by different members of the family.
- Always keep medicines out of the reach of children – store in a locked cupboard or container e.g. locked box if medicines need refrigeration – and at least 1.5 metres off the floor – but remember children can climb.
- Remember that even ‘natural’ products like eucalyptus oil can be highly dangerous poisons. Although essential oils are natural and believed to be ‘therapeutic’ purposes, they are toxic. Natural does not mean not toxic.
- Eucalyptus oil is commonly confused with cough syrup due to similar packaging and swallowed by accident – swallowing as little as 5 mL (millilitres) of 100% eucalyptus oil can be life-threatening for children. In under 15 minutes it can cause loss of consciousness and seizures.
- Chest rubs and vaporiser and inhalant fluids containing camphor or eucalyptus oil are poisonous. If you think a child has swallowed these products contact the Poisons Information Centre immediately.
- Camphor blocks and camphorated oil are extremely dangerous with only small amounts being potentially fatal. Any child who has eaten a camphor block or camphorated oil requires immediate medical attention in hospital.
- Always make sure that child-resistant lids are closed tightly after use.
- Keep medicines in their original containers.
- Don’t refer to medicines as ‘lollies’ around children.
- Avoid stockpiling large quantities of medicines if you don’t need them all – safely dispose of medicines you don’t need at your pharmacy.
- Phone 000 for an ambulance in an emergency.
- Phone the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for first aid advice – make sure this number is clearly visible on your home phone and stored in your mobile phone.
Using winter clothes and blankets out of storage
- Avoid using blankets, bedding or clothing brought out of storage that have been stored with naphthalene (moth balls or flakes) for babies.
- Even washing does not remove all traces of naphthalene – it is recommended that naphthalene is not used when babies are involved.
- Naphthalene can cause poisoning through skin contact especially in young.