According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 430 people in the US die each year from unintentional, non-fire-related carbon monoxide poisoning. Now, a new study finds that snowstorms and power outages may significantly increase the risk of such poisoning.

The research team, led by Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Hartford Hospital, CT, recently published their findings online in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas. It is often referred to as the “silent killer,” not only because we cannot see, smell or taste it, but also because symptoms of CO poisoning, such as dizziness and nausea, are often mistaken for other health conditions.

Faulty equipment or appliances that burn kerosene, oil, natural gas and wood – such as gas grills or ovens, gas or wood stoves and lawn mowers – can cause CO exposure. In 2011, US Poison Control Centers received 12,136 calls related to unintentional CO exposure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that during storms and power outages, many people use alternative power sources for heating that can result in CO build-ups in their homes, putting them at increased risk of CO poisoning.

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During power outages, many people use alternative power sources to heat their homes, which can lead to increased risk of CO exposure.

To investigate further, the Hartford Hospital research team looked at the number of CO exposure cases reported to the Connecticut Poison Control Center following two storms: a winter storm in 2011 that caused widespread power loss and a snowstorm in 2013.

Following the 2011 winter storm, 172 CO patient cases were identified, while 34 cases were identified after the snowstorm.

The team found that the majority of CO exposures occur during the first day following snowstorms and the second and third days following power loss storms.

Dr. Johnson-Arbor says this finding suggests that medical professionals who deal with CO-poisoned patients should adjust staffing patterns and schedules based on the types of storms expected to ensure better and more effective treatment.

The researchers also found that gas-powered generators, propane heaters and lanterns and charcoal grills are the most common sources of CO. Dr. Johnson-Arbor says good ventilation in homes is a key way of preventing CO poisoning.

However, after snowstorms, the researchers found that not only are individuals likely to be exposed to CO in their homes, but also they can be exposed to it in their cars. The team explains that large snowdrifts can block heating vents and tailpipes, which can cause CO to leak back into vehicles.

“Lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide can form in the passenger compartment of a snow-obstructed vehicle, even when the vehicle’s windows are opened 6 inches,” explains study author Dadong Li of the Department of Research Administration at Hartford Hospital.

Therefore, Li says it is important that people check their vehicles after snowstorms to make sure vents and tailpipes are clear of snow. Furthermore, people should avoid sitting in running vehicles during and after snowstorms, even with the windows open, unless vents and exhausts are completely clear of snow.

The research team explains that, as a result of greater awareness of CO exposure, more homeowners are installing CO detectors. These are battery-operated devices that sound an alarm when CO is identified.

However, the investigators say such detectors are not required by law nationwide. Dr. Johnson-Arbor adds:

Increased reports of carbon monoxide poisoning can occur after both snowstorms and power loss storms.

Enhanced public education or local policy actions concerning the use of carbon monoxide detectors, particularly in the aftermath of storms, may be particularly beneficial in states where the use of these devices is not mandated by law.”

The CDC have compiled some tips that can help to reduce the risk of CO exposure:

  • Have heating systems, water heaters and any other gas, oil or coal-burning equipment serviced by a qualified technician annually.
  • Install a CO detector in your home and check the battery when the clocks change each spring and fall. If the detector sounds, leave your home immediately and call 911.
  • Do not use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove or other gasoline or charcoal-burning devices in your home, basement or garage, or outside less than 20 feet from a door, window or vent.
  • Do not heat your home with a gas oven.
  • Do not run a vehicle inside a garage that is attached to your home, even with the door open.
  • Do not burn anything in a stove or fireplace that is not vented.

If you suspect you may have been exposed to CO and experience dizziness, light-headedness or nausea, seek medical attention immediately.