The Other Risk of Storms: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

by March 12, 2017

As you prepare for or recover from a storm, think about keeping your family safe from carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas that causes flu-like symptoms (headache, nausea, fatigue), chest pain, and fainting (syncope). People who are exposed to a high concentration of carbon monoxide are at risk for brain injury and death. Furnaces, heaters, generators, gas stoves, charcoal grills, cars, and trucks are all important sources of carbon monoxide.

Why worry about carbon monoxide and big storms?

During every big storm, we will hear about families being injured or killed by carbon monoxide. This poisoning is preventable.

We worry about GENERATORS during big storms. When people lose power, they start up their generators. People even use GAS STOVES inside when they’re cold. Both generators and gas stoves produce significant quantities of carbon monoxide.

We also regularly hear about cases in which someone is poisoned by carbon monoxide while sitting in a running car with a BLOCKED TAIL PIPE. When the tail pipe is blocked with snow or mud, carbon monoxide backs up into the passenger compartment. Unfortunately, children have been killed this way (keeping warm while mom or dad shovels snow). This happens FAST! In one experiment, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide accumulated inside the passenger compartment after less than 2 minutes of running the engine with a clogged tail pipe.

How can I keep my family safe?

  • Have working carbon monoxide detectors
  • Never use a generator within 20 feet of your living space
  • Keep the generator more than 20 feet from vents, windows, and doors
  • Never run a generator in the attached basement or garage of your home
  • Do not use a portable gas stove or charcoal grill inside
  • Never run a car/truck with a blocked tailpipe


What should I do now to prepare (before the storm)?

Since some carbon monoxide detectors are powered by electricity, make sure you have a battery-operated or battery back-up model. You can also keep a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector with your generator, so you’ll always have one ready to go.

Some people run a generator inside because they are worried about it being stolen. Think now about where you will put your generator. Make sure that spot keeps your generator far enough from the house, and consider using a cable lock to keep it secure there.

Share this information with your family and friends. Let’s make sure no one dies of carbon monoxide poisoning during this next winter storm.


Authors: Dr. John Broach and Dr. Kavita Babu


Links for further reading:

An awesome resource from the CDC on Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention

Information from the National Fire Protection Association  – make sure to watch the video at the bottom of the page

A description of how it takes for a car to fill with carbon monoxide when the tail pipe is clogged



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