Power outages can continue for several days after a disastrous storm. Many people who live in hurricane-prone areas prepare their household by keeping a portable generator on hand to maintain refrigeration and air temperature, or for powering electronic or entertainment devices. However, improper use of these generators can lead to an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
A recent study analyzed the number of people exposed to carbon monoxide after Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008. By compiling data from poison center calls, emergency room visits, hyperbaric oxygen treatments, and deaths that occurred as a result of carbon monoxide exposure after the hurricane, the researchers estimated that as much as 82-87% of storm-related carbon monoxide exposures were the result of improper generator use.
Carbon monoxide exposure can cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Increased exposure can lead to death. But carbon monoxide poisoning can also lead to long-term negative effects such as memory impairment and attention problems as a result of the significant reduction of oxygen to the brain. The memory centers of the brain, such as the hippocampus, are particularly vulnerable to carbon monoxide, and can be permanently damaged during exposure.
The CDC recommends that, to reduce the number of carbon monoxide poisonings and deaths, prevention tips for proper generator use need to be widely broadcast before and during storms.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Carbon monoxide exposures after Hurricane Ike-Texas, September 2008. As reprinted in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (January 2010).