How to Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning When Running a Generator

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U.S.|Tips to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning when you try to stay powered up.

Lowe’s employees loaded a generator onto a truck in McComb, Miss., before Hurricane Ida’s arrival.
Credit...Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • Sept. 1, 2021Updated 1:24 p.m. ET

Downed transmission lines and power plants forced offline by Hurricane Ida have left New Orleans and much of the surrounding region with no electric service, and it may be weeks before repairs are complete.

So thousands of people and businesses have turned to running backup generators and using other improvised means to try to keep at least a few of their lights and appliances working and their phones charged.

But homemade power can come with risks, and the most insidious can be carbon monoxide. It’s a colorless and odorless gas produced by combustion, including the burning of gasoline, kerosene, diesel, natural gas or other fuels in a motor or generator. And if it builds up in the air you breathe, it can be deadly.

“It is important to recognize that carbon monoxide is not something that you are going to taste or see,” said Dr. Emily M. Nichols, an emergency medicine specialist in New Orleans. “It is going to create minor symptoms all the way to death.”

At least 12 people in New Orleans — including seven children — have been taken to hospitals to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, the city’s Emergency Medical Services said on Wednesday.

In Baton Rouge, in the first 24 hours after the storm, the fire department responded to about a dozen calls from homes where carbon monoxide was ultimately detected, a spokesman said.

Officials fielded several similar calls in St. Tammany Parish: In the most severe episode, on Tuesday morning, nine people in a home, including an infant, were experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to a fire department spokesman in Slidell. They had been sleeping while using a generator inside of a garage. They were taken to nearby hospitals and were expected to recover.

Running a generator in any confined space — a house, a shed, a basement — can be very dangerous, health experts say. So can indoor use of charcoal, any kind of gasoline- or kerosene-powered engine, or even a portable gas camp stove.

Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, weakness, dizziness and nausea, according to the Firelands Regional Medical Center in Sandusky, Ohio. But if you are asleep or have been drinking, carbon monoxide can kill you before you become aware of any symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s not unusual to see reports of carbon monoxide poisoning in times of natural disaster or severe weather, when people lose access to regular sources of power and heat and have to improvise. Scores of people were sickened and died in February when a frigid winter storm plunged unusually far south, knocking out power and bursting pipes in places like Houston.

But carbon monoxide poisoning is “entirely preventable,” the C.D.C. says.

The agency urges everyone to have working carbon monoxide detectors in their homes at all times, and local codes require them in many places. When the alarm sounds, it should be heeded immediately, by seeking fresh air outdoors or at a wide open window and by making sure everyone in the home has reached safety.

If you have a generator, use it in a well-ventilated outdoor area. If you run your car engine to charge a phone or other device, or make use of the feature on some vehicles that lets the engine be used as a generator, don’t do it in a garage.

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