Carbon Monoxide Warning is Implicit in Disaster Warnings

Every storm warning should parenthetically contain the words: Carbon Monoxide Warning as well. When power is out the risk of CO exposure rise.

By Rebecca Martin

Everyone who faced the wave of winter and ice storm warnings the past few weeks probably remembers those words and the rush to prepare for some late winter weather.  We made our trips to stock up on necessities and prepare for the possibility of icy roads and limited travel. Grocery store shelves were soon stripped of staples and if we were lucky, we were safely hunkered down at home when the ice began to fall. However, the ice storms that swept across parts of the country brought about the most dangerous of conditions for which many of us were unprepared. And if we were prepared, desperation brought about some desperate actions…even for those of us who know better. As temperatures dropped below freezing, the power went out. Water pipes began to freeze and no relief was forthcoming. And the days dragged on. Nowhere did that scenario become as potentially deadly as in Harris County, Texas where the Winter Storm Warning could have been a broad based Carbon Monoxide Warning. Over 580 people were poisoned by carbon monoxide poisoning in Harris County, Texas in the last week.

Winter storms should come with a carbon monoxide warning as well.

Inspecting chimneys and furnace flues should be part of every Carbon Monoxide Warning. Shown here is a chimney that ice over causing carbon monoxide poisoning in the 2019 Polar Vortex that hit the midwest. Much of the focus in Texas was in generators being run indoors but iced chimneys also contributed to CO poisoning events, including at name brand hotels. https://www.hometownlife.com/story/news/local/wayne-county/wayne/2019/02/04/carbon-monoxide-kills-woman-hickory-hollow-apartment-wayne/2770060002/

As temperatures plunged and the electric grid failed I am sure people searched local power outages and were reassured that the power companies were aware and crews had been dispatched.  What  many people didn’t realize is that it would be days until the power was restored and as the hours went by, desperation deepened. The desperation was due to the bitter cold that swept across the area and concerns about not only keeping one’s self safe but also the very young, those who are disabled and the very old safe in those conditions. Worry mounted as pipes began to freeze and the ensuing damage that burst pipes could cause to homes became increasingly present. Very quickly people were forced into survival mode in order to cope with days without power and little information about how long the outages would last. And all of these concerns brought to light a power grid that was intrinsically inadequate to keep up with the frigid temperatures and extreme conditions which occurred.

Carbon Monoxide Warnings Should Accompany Winter Storm Warnings

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a secondary disaster which often accompanies natural disasters. Wherever there is a potential for loss of power the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning rises. Let us follow the course of carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of natural disasters.

The National Institutes of Health warns that carbon monoxide poisoning can kill in as little as a few minutes.

People suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning running vehicles in attached garages in order to warm up, or maybe even to charge a device.

For those who were prepared with portable generators, some of the most common mistakes were made such as running a portable generator in the garage or other enclosed space. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has data showing that 900 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to portable generators between 2005 to 2017. Thousands have been injured. Yet every year we see the news stories relating these types of injuries or deaths. While these incidents are often due to a lack of knowledge on the safe operation of generators, what we don’t see is the utter desperation which leads to lapses in judgement. The unique weather conditions and ensuing problems of the past couple of weeks is a true study in how brutal a winter weather advisory can become.

Portable generators are the most highly recommended types of generators for natural disasters. They were built to be easily wheeled outdoors in case of an emergency and to be connected to appliances through the use of extension cords or a transfer switch. They are highly recommended in emergencies such as fires to stay informed as to evacuation routes and overall recommended as a means to charge cell phones and other devices to stay in contact with others, including emergency services. Portable generators are capable of powering a refrigerator or a sump pump, hot water heaters and lights. All manufacturers warn that a portable generator should not be used indoors or in any enclosed space. Manufacturers also recommend that you choose the correct model for your family’s projected needs during a power outage to avoid overpowering the system during an outage.

Recommended maintenance of portable generators includes an oil change after the first 30 hours of use and every 100 hours thereafter. Spark plugs and filters should be changed every 200 hours of use. The fuel tank should be emptied when not in use. Those with an electric start should be fully charged before storing or kept plugged in using a trickle charge. It is also recommended that once a month the generator is started and allowed to run a few minutes to guarantee an easy start during an emergency.

Generators Should be at Least 20 feet from Home

Newer generators may feature a sensor that triggers an automatic shut off should the concentrations of carbon monoxide rise too high. And some produce less carbon monoxide to begin with. But this implies that it is sometimes ok to run a generator in a more enclosed space which is not the case. A portable generator should be no closer than 20 feet to your home with the exhaust directed away from the home and especially away from windows and doors. When using extension cords they need to be of the approved outdoor variety and appliances should be directly connected to the generator. Generators should be equipped with an approved cover to protect it from the elements. Generators should also be allowed to cool thoroughly to avoid another common hazard associated with portable generators; burns and fires when gas comes in contact with hot generator parts.

A transfer switch can also be installed to directly connect your generator to a circuit panel to power all your hardwired appliances. This is a safer option as it eliminates extension cords and allows you to monitor the usage while in operation.

Under no circumstances should a generator ever be plugged back into a wall outlet in an attempt to back feed your house. This poses an electrocution risk for electrical workers and other residents who share the same electrical transformer as your home.

Carbon Monoxide Warning Should be Part of Disaster Declarations

But why did the power fail in Texas and why did it fail for such an extended period of time? The answer involves another perfect storm of events which led to the total lack of preparation for the frigid weather that was predicted. According to a Houston Matters interview, the Houston Public Works Director, Carol Haddock stated that most utilities are underfunded  which played a role in the failure of the power grid. Houston has a revenue cap which limits the growth of property tax which ultimately limits funds available for infrastructure improvements. Thus the overall failure was not due to damage due to a storm but rather due to a lack of power generation by the utilities themselves. Though generators were quickly being brought back online, they were as quickly failing as they were just inadequate to the task.

However, all 254 counties in Texas were under a disaster declaration. This has led to a request by Gov. Greg Abbott to the Texas legislature to update the state’s power generators, an investigation of the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and a hard look at the state’s preparedness for emergencies.

It wasn’t just Texas which fell victim to the cold weather. Deaths related to the frigid weather and ice storms spread across eight states. A 61-year-old woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Kentucky after running a generator indoors. A mother and child died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Houston, Texas while over 500 Texans reported into emergency care for carbon monoxide poisoning. Four people died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Oregon. Other deaths occurred due to frigid temperatures, vehicle crashes, house fires, falling through or on ice while other weather related deaths also occurred due to tornadoes; a total of 30 weather related deaths in the past several days.

As I personally live in one of the areas affected by the storms and frigid temperatures, it is very easy to see the problems which were not reported in the news.  I was not even able to reach my portable generator due to the icy conditions outside. Just a trip to use my car to recharge my phone proved almost impossible during our extended power outage. Everything outdoors was instantly solid ice and even salt wasn’t having much effect. It was a very unusual type of storm which immediately resulted in power outages. At first I checked the outage map and was reassured that crews had been dispatched. What I didn’t grasp is that the date of restoration was not until the following day and when that projected time came and went, real dread set in over the unknown.  Especially living in a more rural area where the roads not only became treacherous but also impassable due to fallen trees and branches. As temperatures dropped to 13 degrees and visions of burst pipes began to create real anxiety, I truly understood the desperation people can feel in that situation. And how judgement becomes impaired. I can only imagine how much more difficult it is for families who have young children, the health compromised or the elderly to be concerned about.

What do we do when the temperatures are frigid and the power is out for an extended period of time?

First and foremost it is important to conserve body heat.  Extra layers of clothing, a hat…and settling down under a heavy blanket, especially with the kids,  will help conserve heat.

Do not burn anything larger than candles in your home. If you have a wood burning fireplace make sure you have routine inspections and chimney cleanings to insure proper combustion and exhaust. Quality hardwoods which have been cured for at least six months provide the most heat and the least smoke. Do not burn charcoal meant for barbecuing in your fireplace. Many gas fireplaces are equipped with a battery backup for use during a power outage. Older gas fireplaces can be lit manually while most newer models have a safety system which requires electricity to ignite. Check your manual or consult your dealer on the recommended use of your model during a power outage. Remember that electric starters can ignite when the power comes back on and ignite standing fumes.

Carbon monoxide warmings should include gas stoves Gas stoves should never be used for heating an indoor space and electric stoves were not designed to be a space heaters. Gas stoves were never meant to be left on for long periods of time, first of all. Most gas stoves have electronic igniters and controls. So the danger lies in having a possible spark igniting fumes when the power comes back on. Although gas stoves can be lit manually to cook with, leaving them unmonitored can be a recipe for disaster. In most modern stoves you will not be able to bypass the protections to light the oven, or even the burners. Older stoves may be very inefficient and therefore at greater risk for carbon monoxide. If you must use your gas stove during a power outage, you should cut the power off to the stove to avoid an electronic start and possible spark when the power comes back on and use proper ventilation (sometimes impossible without power).

Even Gas Stoves May Require Outside Oxygen

But I much prefer this answer to the question posted on google. The question: “How long can I leave my gas stove top burning while lit?” Answer: “Until the gas runs out, the oxygen in the space has been depleted, or your house burns down.” A fair carbon monoxide warning is that no source of combustion should be left unmonitored. Always keep a method for extinguishing fires handy as well.

A commonsense list of actions to take when your power goes out is available at https://www.bobvila.com/slideshow/10-things-you-should-never-do-when-the-power-goes-out-51457

Here, in Kentucky we had initial storm warnings which I took with a bit of a ‘what else is new’ attitude. The initial warnings did not include carbon monoxide warnings. But after being without power for a few days I took the warning for the second round of storms much more seriously and was able to ride out any ensuing outages a little more comfortably with appropriate preparation. The lesson learned was it is better to over prepare than under prepare. Now, following these winter storms,  is a good opportunity to jot down a list of things which were lacking in your preparation: From batteries, to water pipe insulation, to a product to allow for safe footing on the ice, to food items which require no cooking and water in case the water supply is compromised as it was in Texas. For instance, I keep gallons of water in unused space in my freezer to help keep my freezer from completely failing and to keep a supply of water on hand at the same time. Portable chargers are available for phones and other devices. It really would benefit all of us to do routine checks of our disaster preparedness and develop plans for emergencies, especially those lasting more than 24 hours. When you hear the phrase winter storm warning, think carbon monoxide warning.

A list of items for an emergency preparedness kit is available at https://www.ready.gov/kit This site offers advice on preparing for any type of emergency, local or national, natural or manmade,  with very specific plans for seniors, families, people with pets, people with disabilities, etc.

One last point to consider is that as our planet changes we are seeing more instances of extreme and unexpected weather. We have recently witnessed extensive fires, powerful weather fronts and record weather extremes which have challenged our nation and world increasingly the past few years. In conjunction we have seen greater delays in federal response as disasters pile up on top of each other.  We really need to be realistic that we need to expect the unexpected and prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

We also need to know where to turn for assistance after being impacted by a natural disaster. Information on assistance on the federal level can be found at https://www.usa.gov/disaster-area-helpAdditional information on where to turn for federal aid following a natural disaster is also available:

Call USAGov at 1-844-USA-GOV1 (1-844-872-4681) to ask us any question about the U.S. government for free. We’ll get you the answer or tell you where to find it. We are open between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, except federal holidays.

            I think one thing we can agree upon is that we should plan for natural disasters beyond the days or few hours leading up to the expected impact. Having emergency plans, essential emergency kits and supplies and routine maintenance and inspections of alternate energy sources are necessary and essential. Preparedness is more than stocking up on milk and bread.

            And always make sure you have not only carbon monoxide detectors installed but they are installed/replaced/inspected when needed. Keeping an extra battery powered detector on hand is also a good idea when dealing with portable generators, use of a gas fireplace or stove and anywhere combustion may cause carbon monoxide build up. Carbon monoxide is invisible and odorless; a detector is the only method of detecting its presence in your home.

For those interested in helping Texans impacted by the recent storms go to https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/17/us/texas-winter-storm-how-to-help-iyw-trnd/index.html

           

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