After Irene, carbon monoxide poisonings prompt generator safety warning

Posted Aug. 30, 2011, at 6:56 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has received reports of carbon monoxide poisonings from improperly run generators. With several thousands of Maine households still without power, health officials on Tuesday issued safety warnings for people using gas-powered generators as alternate power supplies.

“People may be tempted to run their generators in their garages or very close to their homes, but this is extremely dangerous,” said State Toxicologist Andrew Smith. In addition to the recent cases in Maine, there have been several reports of carbon monoxide poisonings across the east coast since the hurricane passed through, including at least one death. All of these poisonings were caused by improper use of generators.

“Gas-powered generators should always be used outside and placed at least 15 feet from windows and doors, including neighboring homes or buildings,” said Smith. “Every home should also have a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector with fresh batteries. This is especially important for those folks running generators right now.”

Two incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning have been reported so far in Maine, one each in Penobscot and Androscoggin counties. Each incident involved two people who were treated and released from their local hospitals.

Police also suspect carbon monoxide poisoning is the cause of two deaths in a Ryamond home where a generator was running.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas formed by the burning of most types of fossil fuels. Using gas-powered generators can cause poisoning if CO gas builds up in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces, such as garages, even if windows and doors are left open.

Warning signs of CO poisoning are flu-like symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness and confusion, but no fever. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause coma or death.

The CDC offers these tips on how to prevent CO poisoning during power outages

  • Place the generator outdoors in the fresh air. Keep it at least 15 feet from windows or doors. Do not put a generator in a closed or partly closed space, like a basement, cellar bulkhead, or attached garage. Carbon monoxide can build up to dangerous levels in these spaces.
  • Do not use outdoor cooking devices such as grills or camp stoves inside.
  • Place a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector outside each sleeping area. CO detectors are available in most supermarkets, pharmacies and hardware stores. Look for the UL mark with the “Single Station Carbon Monoxide Alarm” label.

If you suspect CO poisoning

  • Leave the house at once.
  • Call the fire department or 911.
  • Get medical attention. Call the Poison Center, at 800-222-1222, or your doctor after you leave the house.
  • Do not go back into the building until the fire department tells you it is safe.

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