The tragic death of a 36-year-old man and injuries to five others through carbon monoxide poisoning on Christmas Eve in Beja is a reminder of some of the effects, both direct and indirect, of cold weather.
Whereas Portugal is most commonly associated with hot weather, the fact is that during the winter the temperatures can drop as low as -5°C in the interior parts of the country, and have been known to drop just below zero on occasions in the Algarve. In fact, the lowest temperature recorded in Portugal was -16°C in Penhas da Saúde, in the municipality of Covilhã, Miranda do Douro on 16 January 1945 and 5 February 1954.
In Portugal, such cold conditions are generally associated with the positioning of the Azores anticyclone near the Iberian Peninsula, or an anticyclone near Northern Europe.
Although residents who moved to Portugal from the northern parts of Europe may be accustomed to such temperatures, this kind of weather can pose a risk especially to the elderly. The risk is associated to the fact that many people live in older traditional buildings, which are more difficult to keep warm. This is a reason why the Portuguese government takes the issue of cold weather seriously.
This article therefore not only applies to residents and visitors to Portugal during the winter, but also to those of us who may be travelling to much colder climates for holidays or extended periods.
Effects of the cold
Exposure to intense cold, especially for several consecutive days, can have negative health effects. Extreme cold situations can result in changes in the body that facilitate the emergence of diseases such as influenza and other respiratory infections, and worsening of chronic diseases, including cardiac and respiratory conditions.
In severe conditions, cold spots can be the cause of death, due to hypothermia, especially in the elderly, children and other more fragile people. Hypothermia is a dangerous medical condition that occurs when the body temperature drops more than 2°C below normal temperature. Hypothermia can occur in healthy adults and young people; however, children and the elderly are more susceptible to prolonged exposure to very low temperatures. If this state persists for several hours it can cause death.
The effects also extend to agriculture, the transport sector, hampering the movement of people and goods and representing additional expenditure on energy due to the need for intensive use of heating systems.
During the winter, there is a greater tendency for people to gather together indoors, which may contribute to the spread of some infectious diseases. Indirectly, the cold can also cause road accidents, falls due to ice, fire and carbon monoxide poisoning caused by improper use or malfunction of fireplaces or other heating systems.
One of the greatest risks during the winter is carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that has no smell or taste. Breathing it can make you unwell, and it can kill if you’re exposed to high levels. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning aren’t always obvious, particularly during low-level exposure.
Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels such as gas, oil, coal and wood don’t burn fully. Burning charcoal, running cars and the smoke from cigarettes also produce carbon monoxide gas. Particular attention should be paid to combustion heaters (fireplaces) which may cause intoxication due to carbon monoxide accumulation.
Gas, oil, coal and wood are sources of fuel used in many household appliances, including boilers, gas fires, central heating systems, water heaters, cookers, and open fires. Incorrectly installed, poorly maintained or poorly ventilated household appliances – such as cookers, heaters and central heating boilers – are the most common causes of accidental exposure to carbon monoxide. Blocked flues and chimneys can stop carbon monoxide escaping, allowing it to reach dangerous levels.
The risk of exposure to carbon monoxide from portable devices may also be higher in caravans, boats and mobile homes. So please be aware.
Some general precautions
Some general protections measures against the cold advised by the General Director of Health include avoiding being exposed outside to low temperatures for long periods, without adequate protection clothing;
Dress in layers of warm clothing, with the outside temperature in mind. Layers of clothing will keep yourself warm and protect you best against low temperatures;
Cover all exposed skin: wear a hat, warm mittens and gloves, a scarf and warm socks;
Drink warm fluids. Avoid alcohol. Alcohol causes a false sense of heat;
Increase the consumption of foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (e.g. fruits and vegetables), as they contribute to minimising the risk of infections,
Driving in snowy or icy conditions
Driving in snowy or icy conditions is not recommended but if you need to do so, ensure your vehicle carries snow chains and listen to weather bulletins. Adopt a defensive driving mindset due to the possibility of ice on the road.
The Serra da Estrela is the main snow resort in Portugal. If you are visiting, please check for snow alerts and weather so that you can prepare accordingly. A great website in English is http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Serra-da-Estrela
If driving, be prepared for every eventuality by ensuring that your car is equipped with the following: demisting pad, torch (wind-up so you don’t run out of battery), a hi-vis vest to make you visible if you break down (which is compulsory anyway in Portugal), a blanket to keep you warm, some food, a drink, spare screen wash, de-icer, ice scraper, blanket, shovel, phone charger, map, a first aid kit, a warning triangle (compulsory), some jump leads, a spade and a square of carpet that you can use to put under your drive wheels should you get stuck in the snow.
The most important thing to take with you before driving in snow is a charged mobile phone with the phone number of your breakdown provider stored in it so you can always call for help.
Lastly a reminder to call or visit vulnerable family, friends and neighbours, especially isolated seniors, to make sure they are alright. Other groups at risk include people with pre-existing heart conditions or chronic respiratory illness, infants and young children, people on certain medications, people who work or do physical activities outside for extended periods, and those who are marginally housed or homeless.
For more information call the DGS – Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS) – 808 24 24 24 – or visit the Safe Communities Portugal website in English.
Cold weather precautions at home
■ Keep the temperature of your house between 18ºC and 21ºC;
■ If you cannot heat all the rooms of the house, try to keep the living room warm during the day and warm the room before going to bed;
■ Do not use a gas stove, oven or charcoal stove to heat the house. You also should not use outdoor heating equipment indoors;
■ Avoid sleeping/resting too close to the heat source;
■ Turn off heating systems before bedtime or outside to avoid fire or poisoning;
■ Promote a good circulation of air, not completely closing the divisions of the house, but avoid cold drafts;
■ Keep the use of hot water bottles under supervision to avoid the risk of burns.
By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at www.facebook.com/scalgarve