Maine CDC Press Release

January 3, 2003

State Issues Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Warning

Contacts: Newell Augur, Director Andrew Smith, SM, ScD
  Office of Public and Legislative Affairs State Toxicologist
  Department of Human Services Bureau of Health
  Pager: (207) 851-1082 Tel: (207) 287-5189

With a winter storm forecast for the state and power outages possible, the Department of Human Services, Bureau of Health has issued a warning to all Maine citizens to be extremely careful when using a generator or similar alternative heating or power source. Improper operation or placement of such devices can result in Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

Carbon Monoxide, also known as ‘CO’, is a colorless and odorless gas that is emitted whenever gasoline, kerosene, propane, firewood or charcoal is burned. Carbon Monoxide poisoning occurs when CO gas builds-up in enclosed spaces, such as a garage or a room inside a home. Warning signs of CO poisoning are flu-like symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness and confusion, which are not normally accompanied by any noticeable fever. CO poisoning can result in loss of consciousness, brain damage, and even death.

“Without question, the most important thing people should remember if they use a generator is to place it outside of the home away from any windows or doors in a well ventilated location,” cautioned State Toxicologist Dr. Andrew Smith. “Generators should never be placed in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space like a basement, cellar bulkhead or attached garage,” Dr. Smith added, ”because that’s where carbon monoxide can build up to dangerous levels.”

A Bureau of Health study of the CO poisoning epidemic during the power outages caused by the January 1998 ice storm found that improper location of a gasoline generator increased the risk of poisoning by as much as 300%. “Nearly three-quarters of the CO poisoning incidents resulted when people put their gasoline-powered electrical generators in a basement or garage,” Dr. Smith noted. “And people must not assume that leaving a garage door partly open or even fully open when running a generator inside the garage will guarantee enough air flow to protect their family from CO poisoning,” he added. “If you have high CO levels in an attached garage, this dangerous gas will find its way into your home.”

In addition, state health officials warn anyone using a kerosene heater to place it in a well-ventilated room, to use only K-1 grade fuel in kerosene heaters and to follow instructions for setting the wick height. “CO poisoning can also occur when using a kerosene heater,” advised Dr. Smith, “so be sure to either open a window at least 1 inch or open a door to another room.”

Based on a random sample of Maine households in the regions affected by the ice storm (with more than 90% of those surveyed responding), 31% of households reported using a generator during the ice storm and 19% reported using a kerosene space heater. Of significant concern, 14% located the generator used during the ice storm inside a garage and 17% used portable gas stoves inside the home. Equally as troubling, CO detectors were present in only 17% of households prior to the storm. The study further indicated that more Maine people now own gasoline-powered generators as a result of the ice storm and concerns about possible Y2K power outages.

In order to avoid CO poisoning during this heating season, DHS’s Bureau of Health recommends that people install a carbon monoxide monitor certified by the Underwriters Laboratory (available in most hardware stores) in their house and be sure that the batteries are replaced annually if the monitor is battery powered. Plug-in or direct wired carbon monoxide detectors should have a battery backup to be useful during a power outage. The Bureau also advises people to keep both the chimney flue and a window open when burning decorative gas fireplace logs as a heat source. Furthermore, do not use outdoor cooking devices indoors (such as gas or charcoal grills, gas camp stoves) or and do not use indoor gas cooking stoves as a heat source.

If you suspect that you or anyone in your home is being poisoned by carbon monoxide, you should leave the house immediately, and then call your local fire department or 911. Seek medical attention by contacting either the Maine Poison Control Center (1-800-442-6305) or your physician after you have left the area where you suspect the carbon monoxide is present. Do not go back into the building until you know the CO levels are safe.

Recommendations To Prevent CO Poisoning During A Power Outage

Place generators outdoors in a well ventilated location Generators should be placed well away from home windows or doors Generators should not be placed in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space (such as basement, cellar bulkhead, attached garage) where carbon monoxide can build up to dangerous levels.

Use kerosene heaters in a well ventilated room, by either keeping doors to other rooms open or keeping a window partially open (at least 1 inch) Use only K-1 grade fuel in kerosene heaters Follow instructions for setting the wick height.

Do not use outdoor cooking devices indoors (such as gas or charcoal grills, gas camp stoves).

Do not use indoor gas cooking stoves for heat.

Keep chimney flue and a window open when burning decorative gas fireplace logs as a heat source.

Keep a carbon monoxide monitor certified by the Underwriters Laboratory and available in many hardware stores.

What To Do If You Suspect CO Poisoning?

First, leave the house immediately

Then, call your local fire department or 911.

Seek medical attention Contact either the Maine Poison Control Center (800-442-6305) or your physician after you have left the area where you suspect the carbon monoxide is present.