Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Accidents Surge During Power Outages: Study

Within 48 hours of a power outage, carbon monoxide exposure incidents begin to surge

With tens of thousands of carbon monoxide poisoning accidents reported each year throughout the U.S., a new study highlights the sharp increases in injuries and hospitalizations during power outages.

Harvard researchers report that prolonged power blackouts dramatically increase the rate of carbon monoxide poisoning cases seen in a community, warning that injuries and deaths are likely increase as climate change causes more severe weather events and outages. Their findings were published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas. The gas is often referred to as the “silent killer,” since it is difficult to detect without the use of a properly functioning detector or alarm, and is a leading cause of poisoning deaths in the United States.

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Exposure to Carbon Monoxide Gas May Cause Permanent Brain Damage, Serious Injury or Death.


In the study, a team of researchers reviewed data from the Department of Energy to identify 581 major power outages that occurred between 2007 and 2018, with an average outage lasting 48 hours.

Researchers then used the MarketScan database of commercial insurance claims to identify 799 emergency department visits involving carbon monoxide poisoning accidents that occurred within 10 days before or 10 days after the power outages.

The study found that of the 799 carbon monoxide incidents recorded during those timeframes, roughly 73% occurred within ten days following a power outage, indicating the loss of power and use of secondary heat sources increased carbon monoxide exposure risks.

Researchers indicate the risk of CO poisoning accidents peaked by the third day, finding that after 48 hours the risk increased, becoming nine times more common when compared to the ten days prior.

“Many of the outages included in our study resulted from severe weather events, which are expected to increase in coming years,” the researchers warned, indicating the findings support the need for the U.S. to recognize the magnitude of the risk associated with power outages and carbon monoxide poisoning cases, and to address infrastructure needs to prevent their occurrences.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Risks

While tropical and winter storms can be lethal in and of themselves, many fatalities come in the aftermath of the storm, often involving carbon monoxide accidents caused by improper use of portable generators.

Between 2015 and 2017, CPSC officials estimate there were 78 deaths on average each year from carbon monoxide poisoning associated with generators, with African Americans disproportionately accounting for 22 percent of these generator-related CO deaths. That is nearly twice their 13% portion of the U.S. population.

Due to the inability to detect the gas without the use of a carbon monoxide detector, individuals may be exposed to low levels of the gas over a long period of time, potentially resulting in severe injury or permanent brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The initial symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure may cause feelings of nausea, headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, and shortness of breath, whereas prolonged exposure may result in mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscle coordination or control, loss of consciousness, and ultimately death. It is common for individuals to mistake the initial symptoms of CO exposure for the flu, often times prolonging treatment and causing increased adverse health effects.

Federal health officials indicate nearly 500 people die every year in the U.S. due to carbon monoxide poisoning, with about 20,000 emergency room visits each year.


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