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African Americans Face Higher Risk of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning From Generators: CPSC

As the Atlantic hurricane season approaches, federal safety officials have released a series of guidelines designed to help reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators used during power outages, which new data suggests impacts African Americans disproportionately.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued the portable generator warning last week, urging those who find themselves without power due to severe storms to follow a series of safety instructions to avoid potentially life-threatening poisoning risks, echoing warnings regularly issued every hurricane season.

Last year, the United States had a devastating Atlantic hurricane season, which included eight storm systems that were a Category 3 or higher, and caused millions to go without power for extended periods of time. According to the CPSC warning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts the 2021 hurricane season, set to begin on June 1, will involve even more storms, with at least four major systems predicted to make landfall.

While the tropical storms hitting land are lethal in and of themselves, many fatalities come in the aftermath of the storm due to CO poisonings 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.

The CPSC offered no rationale for why the rates were much higher among African Americans.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Risks

Carbon monoxide is often described as the “silent killer”, as the gas has no smell, taste, color or other irritating factors that may allow individuals to detect a leak.

Prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide gas may result in mental confusion, vomiting, loss of consciousness and quickly cause death. Individuals exposed to carbon monoxide typically experience symptoms similar to the flu, and those who survive prolonged exposures are commonly left with devastating brain damage that can impact them for the rest of their lives.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urges families to take the proper precautionary steps to ensure their heating systems are safe, and not leaking potentially fatal carbon monoxide gas, which is one of the leading causes of fatal poisoning in the United States.

To prepare for a safe storm season, officials recommend the public to do the following:

  • Install battery-operated CO alarms or CO alarms with battery backup in your home, outside separate sleeping areas, and on each floor of your home.
  • Place smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside each bedroom and outside sleeping areas.
  • Press the test button every month to make sure CO and smoke alarms in your home are working properly, and replace batteries, if needed.
  • Check that your generator has had proper maintenance, and read and follow the labels, instructions, and warnings on the generator and the owner’s manual.
  • Stock up on flashlights and extra batteries to provide light if the power goes out.

Following a major storm that causes a power outage, the public is being encouraged to follow a series of safety instructions when using a portable generator or CO emitting power source, which include:

  • Use portable generators OUTSIDE ONLY, at least 20 feet away from the house; and direct the generator’s exhaust away from the home and any other buildings that someone could enter.
  • NEVER operate a portable generator inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace, shed or on the porch.  Opening doors or windows will not provide enough ventilation to prevent the buildup of lethal levels of CO.
  • CO poisoning from portable generators can happen so quickly that exposed persons may become unconscious before recognizing the symptoms of nausea, dizziness or weakness.
  • Never ignore carbon monoxide and smoke alarms when they sound.  Get outside immediately.  Then call 911.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), carbon monoxide poisoning kills about 500 people in the U.S. annually, and is linked to about 15,000 emergency room visits, many of which could have been prevented by the use of carbon monoxide detectors and proper maintenance of heating systems and generators.

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