Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Florida During the 2004 Hurricane Season

During natural disasters gasoline-powered electric generator use rises due to power outages. Generators are sources of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning when used in poorly ventilated spaces or too near inhabited buildings. Existing public prevention campaigns focus on not operating generators in "enclosed spaces." However, such published information, including in manuals, does not describe precisely what an adequately ventilated space is, or what a safe distance from an inhabited building is. Most published studies have examined winter generator use and thus, have not adequately considered how warm weather considerations may differ, such as wanting rain protection for the generator.

The authors interviewed by telephone 35 representatives of separate, nonfatal, poisoning CO incidents that occurred in Florida between August–September (hurricane season) 2004, in order to examine characteristics and sources of CO exposure. A total of 51 incidents occurred during this period, affecting 167 people, not including six fatalities. Characteristics of incidents included: 48 percent of poisonings occurred while generators were operated outside (an average of seven feet from the home), 33 percent were operated in the garage (most with the garage door closed), and 15 percent inside the home. Reasons for generator placement included concerns about theft, rain and wind, length of extension cords, flooding, and that sales persons had set up the generator. Eighty-nine percent of placement decisions were made by a male in the household and 74 percent of incidents occurred among first-time owners. No one reported purchasing a CO detector or being told that they should consider doing so, although most people said they had received some safety information about generator operation. Despite having undergone CO poisoning, many interviewees still did not understand the nature of CO: several respondents thought it was safe to use a generator inside if windows were open and/or exhaust fans were running; several stated that CO has a smell or is visible, and 10 respondents stated that CO "can burn your eyes."

The study also found that people who reported having heard/read safety messages were less likely to operate the equipment unsafely. The authors suggest that engineering solutions, such as equipment that shuts off when CO levels become dangerous, would be one way to sidestep the fact that education campaigns are only partially effective. At the least, specific distances of safe operation should be described in manuals, on Web sites and in education campaigns. The use of CO detectors and educational interventions that target owners at point-of-sale should be developed.

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