Sustained Low Oxygen Levels Can Induce Hypoxemia and Cabin Fever

Don’t forget the importance of proper ventilation systems when you winterize your winter living space.

| January/February 1979

"Cabin fever" is an expression that means different things to different people. The term might cause some folks to remember seeing Charlie Chaplin make soup out of his shoes in a rerun of The Gold Rush. Other people may equate it with February — the month that Joseph Wood Krutch called "the very three a.m. of the calendar" — when false spring can be jarred by a terrible blizzard. But, to most folks, cabin fever just means a need to get away, to be anywhere but where they are . . . an urge to shuck winter and indulge (prematurely) in a celebration of spring.  

Like many homilies and old wives' tales, the notion of cabin fever is feared by some and laughed at by others, but there is a form of this "disease" that can be very real and even dangerous . . . as my housernate and I discovered. 

Our 16- by 20-foot board-and-batten cabin was barely standing when we found it high on the slopes of Oregon's Blue Mountains. The exterior boards had been ripped from three of its sides, and the only things holding the little structure up were its sturdy box frame and the inner walls. 

But we loved the place, and so pre-winter repairs became an urgent project. We installed fiberglass insulation throughout the building, replaced the missing boards, and added weatherstripping. The work was satisfying, and when — during the first cold spell — the winds outside barely disturbed the plume of smoke from my evening pipe, we judged the job well done. With its wood stove fired up, the cabin was snug and secure . . . even when the temperature plunged to 20 below! 

In our snug security, however, we'd forgotten a very simple junior high school science lesson: An experiment in which a lit candle was placed beneath a bell jar. The flame went out in that demonstration and — our instructor warned us — had a mouse been under the jar with the candle, it would have died. 

Fortunately, though, we had not quite made a bell jar of our cabin, despite all of the caulking and weatherstripping . . . but we had created a situation where —­ with the wood stove burning — our oxygen level sometimes dropped too low. 

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