Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Threatens During Power Outages

With record-breaking storms hitting eastern Washington hard, the threat of extended power outages is a real concern. The Spokane Regional Health District is urging everyone to be mindful of the risks that accompany being without power. 

"When the power goes out, people just want to stay warm and get a hot meal," said Mark Springer, Epidemiologist for Spokane Regional Health District. "But some of the tools we use to do that might do us a lot of damage instead. Poisoning from carbon monoxide is a real threat, as is getting sick from perishable food that has not been kept as cold as it should have been."

Last year, during the Seattle area's winter storms, several people died from breathing carbon monoxide produced by a heating source meant to be used only outside, in fresh air. Carbon monoxide gas is odorless and is produced when fuels such as gasoline, propane, oil, kerosene, natural gas, coal or wood are burned. Many people have carbon monoxide detectors in their homes, but these usually won't work without electricity. To avoid poisoning:

  • During a power outage or at any other time, do not operate fuel-powered machinery such as a generator indoors, including in the garage
  • Do not cook or heat with charcoal barbeques inside your home
  • Avoid using combustion "space heaters" unless there is an exhaust vent.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include a splitting headache, nausea and vomiting, and lethargy and fatigue. If you think carbon monoxide might be affecting you, get fresh air immediately. Call for medical help from a neighbor's home. Don't go back inside your house until the Fire Department tells you it is safe.

If the power goes out in your home, there are steps you can take to keep food safe to eat for as long as possible. Try to keep the doors closed on your refrigerators and freezers as much as possible. This keeps the cold air inside. A full freezer can stay at freezing temperatures about 2 days; a half-full freezer about 1 day.

If you think the power will be out for several days, try to find some ice to pack inside your refrigerator. Remember to keep your raw foods separate from your ready-to-eat foods. Refrigerated foods should be safe as long as the power is out no more than a few hours and the refrigerator/freezer doors have been kept closed. Potentially hazardous foods should be discarded if they warm up above 41º F.

Frozen foods that remain frozen are not a risk. If potentially hazardous foods are thawed, but are still cold or have ice crystals on them, you should use them as soon as possible. If potentially hazardous foods are thawed and are warmer than 41º F, you should discard them. When in doubt, throw it out!