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Carbon Monoxide Poisonings Linked to Gasoline-Powered Generators

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WebMD Health News

Jan. 28, 2000 (New York) -- With severe winter weather bearing down on many parts of the country and causing widespread power outages, experts caution that using a gasoline-powered generator in your home as a backup source of power can put you at risk for potentially deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. The risk of poisoning can be lessened, however, by taking appropriate precautions -- such as only operating the generator outside or in a well-ventilated structure that is not attached to your home and installing a carbon monoxide detector with a battery backup.

In a study of 100 people with carbon monoxide poisoning seen in four hospital emergency rooms after a 1998 Maine ice storm left 600,000 people without power, the majority of cases were associated with using a gas-powered generator in the home. Generators operated in attached garages were 19 times more likely to cause carbon monoxide poisoning -- and those in basements were more than 300 times more likely -- than generators placed outside or in an unattached structure. Other than generators, the main sources of carbon monoxide poisonings were kerosene and propane heaters.

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous, odorless gas found in the exhaust of motor vehicles and other gasoline-powered devices. More than 500 people in the United States die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year. "You can't taste it, you can't smell it, you can't see it," lead author W. Randolph Daley, DVM, MPH, tells WebMD. The severity of illness from carbon monoxide poisoning depends on the amount of gas a person is exposed to. "It's possible for people to become ill and even die without experiencing symptoms -- usually when the person is sleeping and levels become high," says Daley, an epidemiologist at the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health in Atlanta. Typical symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning -- including headache, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting -- can mimic the flu, making it difficult to diagnose, particularly during winter months. A blood test is used to confirm carbon monoxide poisoning.

The 59 female and 41 male patients with carbon monoxide poisoning in the Maine study ranged in age from 11 months to 95 years. Oxygen is the main treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning, and most patients were required to wear an oxygen mask for a few hours to bring down the level of gas in their blood. One man, who had been asleep in his home with a generator, died, and five people had to be placed in special hyperbaric oxygen chambers that provide 100% oxygen.

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