Snow raises carbon monoxide peril

Blocked flues, car exhaust, generators let deadly gas collect

February 07, 2010|By Robert Little

Even before the snowfall began, weather forecasters and emergency management officials were warning Marylanders about a little-discussed but increasingly common threat from any weather-related emergency: carbon monoxide poisoning.

Weather that causes power outages is often followed by reports of carbon monoxide poisoning from gasoline-powered generators. But mammoth snowfalls also cover and block vehicle exhaust pipes, which can cause carbon monoxide to build up inside the passenger area. And snow buildup on rooftops can block flues and vents, restricting the flow of oxygen to furnaces and water heaters and causing the deadly gas to accumulate inside the home.

"Unfortunately, it's one of those things you can predict happening whenever there's a big snowstorm," said Dr. Bruce Anderson, director of operations for the Maryland Poison Center at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

An odorless and colorless gas produced when fossil fuels are burned without adequate oxygen for combustion, carbon monoxide is deadly in large doses because it replaces oxygen in the bloodstream.

One important precaution for Marylanders today, Anderson said, is to clear snow away from a vehicle's exhaust pipe before starting the engine. Also, outdoor grills and heaters should never be used indoors. And generators should be used according to the manufacturer's instructions, which typically call for operating them in open spaces no closer to a home than 50 feet.

"Some gases that are produced have really nice warning properties and odors to them, but not carbon monoxide," Anderson said. "You can't smell it, can't see it, can't taste it, and the symptoms of exposure - headache, upset stomach, dizziness - aren't always obvious.

"Awareness is one of the most important things," he said.

Those who think they have been exposed to carbon monoxide should call 911, Anderson said. But local officials have also been trying to spread awareness and prevent the hazard since before the snow began to fall. Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano issued a statement warning property owners to clear snow from outdoor vents.

"Property owners are urged to clear the snow at least 3 feet away from the exhaust and air intakes," he said in the warning. "Units that are not kept clear could be in danger of complete system failure, resulting in no heat, or worst case, it can cause the flue gases to travel back into the house introducing carbon monoxide to the occupants."

The National Weather Service released a list of warnings Friday and Saturday, and guarding against exposure to carbon monoxide, or CO, from portable generators and heaters ranked No. 1. The weather service also cautioned people trapped outside in a vehicle to run the engine no more than 10 minutes an hour for heat, and to leave the windows cracked to reduce the threat of CO poisoning.

Power outages frequently lead to reports of CO poisoning from gas generators, which homeowners often use to power lights and keep refrigerators running. But recent medical literature has identified another, unexpected contributor to CO's weather-related threat: video games.

In a paper published this summer in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Texas examined generator-related carbon monoxide poisonings after the landfall of Hurricane Ike in 2008, which disrupted electrical service to more than 2 million people. The researchers found 37 cases of CO poisoning from gas-powered generators, and the most common reason for using the generators was to power children's video games.

"As predicted, a number of individuals were poisoned with carbon monoxide from electrical generators. What was not predicted were the reasons they were using generators to produce electricity," the study said. Operating a generator inside a home's attached garage was a common source of the deadly gas, the study also found.

Like Anderson, the University of Texas researchers concluded that education is one of the most important preventive steps.

"The fact that generators continue to be the source of so many cases of CO poisoning suggests that an adequate public education program regarding their risks has not been accomplished in this country," the paper concluded.

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