The Season for Chicago Carbon Monoxide

Chicago carbon monoxide poisonings increase in frequency as the cold is upon us. Daylight savings time is over, the nights are longer and colder. Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching. If you had not already done it, last week’s cold spell probably had you turning on your to heat. For many, winter will bring both an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet, the late fall is in many ways more risky than the dead of winter, because this is the time the heat systems are fired up for the first time. Further, people living in poverty have often had power turned off and they seek alternative methods of heat, all which come with more risk of CO poisoning. Power outages which accompany winter snowstorms, and the greater risk that venting sources might be blocked by snow.

Chicago carbon monoxide risks

Winter and Chicago carbon monoxide poisoning risks are correlated because furnaces run more, storms increase stress to exhaust systems and people use substandard methods for heat. 

Chicago Carbon Monoxide Risks linked to Snowstorms

A study by researchers from Hartford Hospital in Hartford Connecticut (American Journal of Preventative Medicine) found that cases of carbon monoxide poisonings rose following power outages and snowstorms. They also were able to determine that the number of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning during snowstorms were more prevalent within the first 24 hours of a snowstorm while those due to power loss rose the second or third day of the outage. This allowed the hospital to determine that different staffing and call schedules could be put in place depending not only on the outages expected, but the nature of the outage itself. This type of preparation saves lives.

During a snowstorm there is a greater risk of exposure Chicago carbon monoxide poisonings inside of vehicles. As a precaution one should always check the exhaust to make sure it is free of snow. If it is blocked it is not safe to sit in your car while it is running even if you have all the windows down. If you find yourself off the road in a snowdrift waiting for help to arrive…it is imperative to check the exhaust to make sure it is clear and is not backing up into the vehicle. Maybe you like to run out and start your car on snow days to get a head start on scraping the ice. Take a minute to make sure the exhaust is clear as well because 10 minutes later you don’t want to be jumping into a car that has been filling with backed up fumes. Many people assume that rolling the window down a bit is all that is needed and that can be a deadly assumption if the exhaust is not clear. It is also very important to address exhaust warnings in vehicles. The winter brings more opportunities to damage exhaust systems directly or indirectly, leading to more Chicago carbon monoxide poisonings.

The same principle holds true for home heating exhaust. A major snowstorm can create blockages of home furnace venting systems and be just as deadly as using an improperly vented generator in the home. Snowstorms often make for a more closed in environment in your home so checking vents is a good habit in the winter. Our homes have become more and more airtight historically which creates its own problem.

Chicago Carbon Monoxide Poisonings from Generators

Another factor is home generator poisonings which is common globally and increasing in the United States. Generator poisonings are often making the news, but those news events tend to track hurricanes, where large areas of power is knocked out by high winds. One isn’t well understood is that portable electric generators are also deadly when used to replace the electricity when the utility company has turned off the electricity.  You may be under the impression that it is illegal for utility companies to shut off utilities at those times when people are most at risk; during extreme heat or extreme cold, but the laws vary from state to state.

We have blogged on the risk factors of portable electric generators repeatedly. See

Although the majority of states have some sort of law in place during the coldest months of the year, some require some sort of contract specifying a payment plan or have these options only open to certain groups of people, the elderly, disabled and low income families. These laws cover longer spans in the north and shorter spans in the south. Some require documents from a treating doctor, some require a percentage of the bill be paid. There just is not a federal standard in place as our President had insisted at the beginning of the pandemic.  In fact, during the pandemic,  many states implemented bans on the shut off of utilities especially due to the heat waves this summer but those restrictions are now being lifted as the weather begins to get cold again and most ended in September. House Democrats passed a relief bill in May that was not included in the Senate GOP proposal.

Portable Electric Generators Can be Hazards in Winter

The issue of Chicago carbon monoxide poisonings hit the news last week with two people severely poisoned on the South Side. The two adults who were the victims of carbon monoxide poisoning in their home this past week. The home was being powered by a generator to supply electricity.  A family pet was also found deceased on the scene. Though Illinois had voted to extend Covid relief in regards to utility shut offs until the state was reopened or until September 1, whichever came first, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is possible for families in need to get necessary help when the temperatures plunge again. I find this highly wishy washy on the entire governments’ part as on one hand, at risk individuals are still living in a continuing lock down state, others are proceeding back to work and activities and essentially emergency provisions are being forgotten, and the news is turning to regional upsurges in Covid cases as a result of reopening. A highly vulnerable place for the elderly and disabled to be in to make ends meet. And those in charge assuming that one can’t get their utilities turned off if it might be dangerous for their health.

Utility Disconnections Can Cause Poisonings

The United States CPSC has been worried about this very issue of utility disconnection related poisonings since it began the rule making process to regulate the amount of carbon monoxide emissions from portable electric generators. Prior to the beginning of the Trump administration, that Rule was poised to go into effect, but it was sidetracked by a shift in politics. Generators are one of the single most deadly products manufactured in the United States, accounting for nearly a 1,000 deaths in a ten-year period.

Attorney Gordon Johnson testified at one of the hearings for this Proposed Rule in 2017. At the time, it was thought this regulation would soon be implemented. It didn’t happen. I warned at that time that it wasn’t just the number of deaths from these poisonings but all of the survivors who were left with brain damage. The economic cost to our country of tens of thousands of survivors with brain damage is staggering.

We have witnessed surges in carbon monoxide poisonings after storms like Hurricane Laura where half the deaths in Calcasieu Parish were due to carbon monoxide poisoning and not from the storm itself. The deaths in question were caused by a generator placed in an attached garage with the door to the home left partially open. Generators are not the only cause of poisoning in storm related deaths. Kerosene lanterns, propane powered devices and grilling indoors have also proved lethal under the right circumstances.

But how do we address the danger to people when they have no alternative for life saving heat? That basically puts us into the same position as many third world countries where the burning of various fuels has been one of the leading causes death n and certainly the leading cause of poisoning. Research done by the charity National Energy Action (NEA) in the UK showed a definitive link between poverty and CO poisoning with  33% of the homes they monitored  showing levels greater than 10ppm, enough to create health concerns. One of the causes was just the general state of any fuel burning devices as those with less money were unable to perform necessary maintenance and repairs or replacement. Another reason was that some homes were using the stove to heat the house, which as I mentioned earlier can lead to a buildup beyond the specifications the stove was intended for.

We have to focus some blame on those housing developments in poorer areas which do not meet a proper level of maintenance and repair. HUD does not require carbon monoxide detectors. And so we see incidents like that in Columbia, SC in 2019 where two people died and inspectors found high levels of carbon monoxide inside all 26 buildings in the development as well as numerous other health infractions. There have been 11 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning in HUD housing since 2003. HUD recommends that detectors be used but there are no requirements for them to be in place for those running these developments. Some states are stepping up, such as Maryland, to require detectors in all new construction in 2007 and in 2018 voted to require detectors in all rental properties. But federal carbon monoxide standards are lowest for public housing. Standards are somewhat stricter for properties subsidized by HUD as a 2016 housing law was passed by Congress to require that detectors “where required” be operational. But this language is vague as it does not specify where the detectors are required.

CO Poisonings from Ovens

In the average home with a gas range, studies found that 51% of kitchen ranges raised CO levels in the home above the EPA standard. This is especially problematic if gas ranges are left on to give a source of heat. Thus, continued use inside an isolated home can quickly send that number to unacceptable levels. Whenever we introduce any fuel burning device into our homes we have to remember that that innocent looking range has certain capabilities to impact our health and it is regulated. Whatever we introduce haphazardly into that environment is something to be treated with the utmost respect for its ability to turn into a lethal device and sometimes too quickly for us to react to what is happening. We hear about periodic preventative maintenance on our furnaces. The need to replace filters and clean burners. When was the last time you had your oven serviced?

Perfect Storm for CO is Coming

We have really entered a somewhat unique situation as we approach winter 2020-2021. We have a pandemic which is impacting the economy and we have a government which has left many decisions regarding the most vulnerable up to the individual states. And we have seen some weather extremes over the summer with record breaking heat. What will winter hold for us? Whether we face carbon monoxide hazards through storms and power outages or whether we face unexpected financial hardships in the midst of extreme temperatures…will we be able to get the message and resources to the public that are needed to save lives? Or is this an area in need of a mobilized public to provide the education and hopefully detectors to anyone who is vulnerable? This is a great year to add carbon monoxide detectors to your must have survival gear for winter storms and perhaps an item for some gift lists.

I hope that an awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide make everyone take pause when seeing a story of a family affected regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Because time and again we are seeing illnesses and deaths that were so easily preventable. The dialogue needs to be going to educate everyone and drive home the fact that if it burns fuel, it requires proper installation, proper care and maintenance,  and proper use.

Rebecca Martin contributed to this blog.




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