Is home heating causing health problems?

Turning on the heat in Canada is inevitable every autumn. However, doing so can make some people sick and cause health problems. Why? And what can be done to lessen the impact?

It comes like clockwork every year – that day when homeowners turn on the heat for the first time. For some, it’s as simple as flipping a switch on the thermostat. For others, it’s the start of an exhausting, lengthy battle with sickness.

Anyone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma can tell you – that first blast of furnace heat contains a heap of headaches (sometimes literally). That’s why it’s recommended the first time you turn on your heat every year, you do so when everyone’s gone and you can leave some windows open. That way the dust, allergens and other irritants can circulate out of the house before anyone has to breathe the air.

A good air purifier can also help under these circumstances, experts say.

Here, we’ve examined different sources of home heating and evaluated the health problems associated with each. Depending on your particular health issue, one choice may stand out among the others.

Forced-air heating systems

  • They're known to blow dust particles and allergens into the air. These air pollutants can be minimized if you clean the vents regularly with a vacuum and a wet cloth. If your ducts appear dirty, vacuum them, as well, as far in as you can reach. It also helps to change the dust filter on the return air side of the furnace regularly.

Propane/natural gas stoves and fireplaces

  • These sources of heat can be problematic, even for those who don’t suffer from respiratory disorders. Symptoms occur when natural gas heaters emit high levels of carbon monoxide:If you begin to suffer from headaches when you’re in the home and feel better when you leave, your heater could be giving off dangerously high levels of odourless, colourless carbon monoxide fumes.

It is critical that you install a carbon monoxide detector if you use this type of heat!
Even low-level carbon monoxide exposure can be dangerous, especially to children, and higher levels can be fatal! If your detector alerts you to higher than normal levels of carbon monoxide, hire a licensed gas fitter immediately to come and check your natural gas heater and ventilation systems.

Remember to have your heater serviced every couple of years and replace it if it’s more than 15 years old – it may not meet current emissions standards. What's more, have your fireplace and chimney professionally inspected and cleaned to ensure proper ventilation of carbon monoxide.

Your propane/natural gas heater may also be emitting dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide, which can cause shortness of breath. Over time, nitrogen dioxide can damage your lungs. At the very least, it can trigger asthma and COPD symptoms.

Wood stoves

While big on charm and adding ambience, wood stoves pollute both indoor and outdoor areas; although newer ones are much improved. It is recommended that people with respiratory ailments avoid this heating option, as wood smoke contains toxic microscopic particles of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, lung-damaging hydrocarbons, formaldehyde and even various carcinogens.

Which heating option is best?

It depends:

  • Forced-air heating systems are worthwhile, if kept clean and free of irritants.
  • Propane/natural gas heaters are fine, as long as they aren’t emitting dangerous elements.

Discuss the options with a trusted HVAC contractor and learn the pros and cons of each. Above all, ensure you follow the service and maintenance protocols to ensure good ventilation and air circulation throughout your home to keep everyone warm, safe and happy.

Is home heating causing health problems?
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