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How to stay safe during Baltimore's arctic conditions

The Baltimore Sun

As Maryland experiences arctic conditions this week, experts are recommending residents take certain safety measures while braving the extreme cold expected to last through Friday.

Baltimore’s Interim Health Commissioner Mary Beth Haller issued a Code Blue Extreme Cold declaration Tuesday night until the start of the weekend, according to a Monday news release.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind as the bitter temperatures linger:

Wear extra layers

Exposure to extreme colds increases the risk for certain injuries or death, especially for children, the elderly and the chronically ill, according to Baltimore’s Department of Health.

Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has reported three cold weather related deaths in Baltimore this winter season, the release states.

Matthew Levy, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins, said extreme cold weather can put stress on the body in a number of ways — including through hypothermia, physical slips and falls, cardiac distress, dehydration, frostbite and even carbon monoxide poisoning caused by poorly-ventilated heating devices.

“A lot of this boils down to common sense and maintaining good situational awareness,” Levy said of preventing those dangerous health conditions.

Exposed or wet skin is the most susceptible for frostbite. In periods of extreme cold, the Baltimore health department recommends wearing multiple layers of loose-fitting clothes and head coverings, like a hat or scarf while venturing outdoors. Wet clothing should be removed immediately to prevent freezing.

An early sign of frostbite is pain, followed by the skin taking on a waxy, dry appearance, Levy said. If the pain does not subside, it may be time to seek additional help, he said.

Slips, trips and falls on ice are often underestimated as risks during cold weather, but can cause significant injury, Levy said, adding that it takes very little moisture to create ice. He suggests taking extreme caution and making sure to wear sturdy shoes before leaving the house.

Cold, dry weather can also dehydrate people faster, especially through exhaling while outdoors. Levy likes to remind people they should drink plenty of fluids and avoid dehydrating, alcoholic beverages, he said.

Physical exertion either through shoveling snow or other outdoor activities can cause cardiac stress on people with certain coronary or respiratory conditions, he said. Those people should consult a doctor about the degree of physical stress they can reasonably take during periods of extreme winter weather.

In cases of carbon monoxide exposure, Levy said symptoms can manifest as cold- or flu-like symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and nausea. Levy suggests people take extra care to notice if everyone in a home is experiencing similar symptoms and to make sure carbon monoxide detectors are installed and working.

Levy added that people should not forget about their animals and pets in need of shelter during cold weather.

Seek shelter at night

While experts recommend people stay inside during periods of extreme cold, it is important to remember those who may lack access to a home with functioning heat.

City department of health officials ask residents to check in on neighbors, especially children, the elderly and those suffering from illness, during the winter season. Residents are encouraged to immediately call 311 if a neighbor is without heat or power so that city agencies can assist them.

The Mayor’s Office of Human Services also activates a “winter shelter status” on nights 32 degrees or below. Should the city’s existing shelters fill up on these nights, the city will transport homeless individuals to overflow shelters, where they will receive dinner and breakfast and access to shower and laundry services.

The city publishes contact information for homeless service programs on its website.

Individuals experiencing homelessness can access overflow shelter and transportation by calling 443-478-3777 to reach the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center at 620 Fallsway in Baltimore. Families with minor children can call 410-627-4280 for shelter and transportation availability.

Keep your shelter safe

While the home may seem like a good place to wait out the cold, Marylanders should still be mindful of certain cold-related risks indoors.

For example, the Baltimore department of health recommends keeping space heaters and candles away from flammable materials, such as curtains, furniture and loose clothing. Stoves and generators, which are prohibited from use inside homes, may cause fires or carbon monoxide poising, according to the department.

While warming a car before a trip, commuters are reminded not to leave the car running in a closed space such as a garage.

The Baltimore City Department of Public Works offers tips to help protect water lines during periods of cold weather.

Officials recommend finding the location of the water shutoff valve in the home and checking it periodically to ensure it works properly.

A frozen pipe can be warmed using a blow dryer on the area where it enters the house. Homeowners can also let a thin stream of cold water run from a basement faucet about the thickness of a pencil lead.

Sump pumps should be checked frequently as they could freeze and result in a flooded basement.

Department officials also recommend having three days supply of bottled water on hand in case pipes do freeze. One gallon should be budgeted per person per day.

Stock your car with an emergency kit

If Marylanders must travel during the cold snap this week, Levy suggests bringing an emergency kit for one’s car and creating a plan with family members. A good emergency kit can include a warm blanket, a phone charger, a snack, jumper cables and a first aid kits. People also may consider stocking cars with salt or other materials that could help with traction.

Levy also recommends making sure that cars have brake fluid and proper tires as they can be the strongest defense on icy roads, he said.

“Just having four wheel drive doesn't mean your car will fair any better breaking in snow or ice,” Levy said. “If you don't have to be in the road, don't be on the road.”

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