The safe minimums for home temperatures

Medical Matters

December 09, 2005|By JUDY FOREMAN

With home heating prices so high, how low can I safely set my thermostat?

The American College of Emergency Physicians recommends that you keep home temperatures no lower than 65 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night.

The big danger of setting the thermostat too low is hypothermia, or a body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or less, said Dr. Rick Blum, president of the doctors' group.

"Hypothermia can have an insidious onset in older adults," Blum added. And since muddled thinking is among the first signs, people often don't realize they're in danger. Some go to sleep and never wake up.

It is also "a big no-no" to try to stay warm by using your oven for heat, said Mary-Liz Bilodeau, a critical care nurse in the burn unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Not only do you run the risk of burning yourself on the oven, but drafts in the kitchen also can pull flames out of it, which risks starting a fire.

If you use a space heater, be careful. Don't leave the house or go to bed with it on, and don't put it near anything flammable: curtains, clothes, furniture.

Carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas produced by burning anything with carbon in it, is another wintertime threat, said Dr. Tracy Wimbush, an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General. Improperly vented wood stoves, furnaces, generators, as well as gas grills brought inside, can all release carbon monoxide. As with hypothermia, many people affected by carbon monoxide lie down to sleep - and die.

In addition to installing smoke detectors, you should install CO detectors in your home. And never put children in a running car in which the exhaust pipe is blocked by snow; while you shovel out, the children may succumb to CO.

If you need help paying for fuel, you can call the National Energy Assistance Referral Project, 866-674-6327, or see energynear .org. In Maryland, help is available from the Maryland Energy Assistance Program and Project Heat Up. For information, call the Department of Human Resources at 800-352-1446. Phone numbers for local Home Energy Program Offices are available at

What can I do to avoid bothersome electric shocks? Am I correct in believing that it is my dry hair that causes me to get shocked every time I touch any metal on cold days?

No, it's not your dry hair, it's the dry weather, says Walter H.G. Lewin, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who demonstrates this static electricity phenomenon every year in class.

What happens as you move around a room or sit on a chair, he says, is that you often rub against something, which causes you to become electrically charged. "If the air is humid, this charge leaks off you very rapidly," he says. "If the air is dry, that does not happen." You may also hear crackling sounds when you comb your hair in the winter. These are sparks flying from your hair to the comb and from hair to hair.

If you are charged, you get a shock when you touch a metal door or your car. Walking barefoot will prevent these shocks because you keep discharging all the time through your feet. (When you wear shoes, the soles prevent this discharge from occurring.)

To avoid shocks when the air is dry, try touching the doorknob with a wooden pencil in your hand before you turn it. This will discharge the static electricity in your body. The current will be much lower than if you touch the doorknob with your bare hands.

For some truly shocking fun, Lewin suggests this experiment: Stand in front of a mirror in a darkened room, wearing a nylon shirt. Take the shirt off. "You will see light sparks in the mirror. Your whole shirt may glow. I have done it many times," says Lewin. But do it now because this doesn't work in the summer.

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