Dozens are suffering generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning after Ida

By Isabel Brown, Consumer Watchdog Associate

More than 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana and Mississippi have been left without power in the wake of Hurricane Ida, and there are about 200,000 more without power along the East Coast including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. According to local utility providers, households that were directly within Ida’s path could be without power for another three weeks. This is especially devastating as the area remains under a heat advisory due to a 100-plus degree heat index.

Many of the households and businesses affected by outages have turned to portable emergency generators to power their basic necessities while they wait. These fossil fuel-powered emergency generators can provide enough electricity to operate some lights and a few appliances, including air conditioners. 

However, as helpful as generators are, failing to take the necessary precautions when using them can be catastrophic for people’s health.

These potentially fatal user errors are typically caused by lack of information about the necessary precautions. We’ve put together this tips guide of what you need to know to use your emergency generator safely.

Avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning

Local officials in Louisiana are receiving multiple calls every hour from people experiencing  health problems caused by improper use of generators. In just the few days since Ida hit Louisiana on Sunday, one person has died and nearly four dozen people have been hospitalized due to generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning.

Generators fueled by diesel, gasoline or natural gas can be incredibly helpful during power outages caused by natural disasters. However, burning off fuel produces carbon monoxide gas, which can be lethal in high concentrations. It is odorless and colorless, meaning that most people inhaling it don’t even realize until it is too late. People suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning can experience flu-like symptoms, including:

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Weakness

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Chest pain

  • Confusion

  • Shortness of breath

  • Blurred vision

  • Loss of consciousness

Carbon monoxide poisoning can be especially dangerous for people who are sleeping or intoxicated. In severe cases, it can cause permanent brain damage or death.

The best way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is to make sure the generator is far enough away from enclosed spaces where people are sheltering, and that the area where the generator is running is adequately ventilated. Here are our tips:

  • Always follow manufacturer instructions when setting up a generator.

  • Never use a generator inside your home or garage. They should be used outdoors in well-ventilated areas that are at least 20 feet away from any homes or dwellings.

  • Double-check that the exhaust is pointed away from any doors, windows or vents to prevent the gas from entering your home.

  • Install battery-operated carbon-monoxide detectors inside living quarters to be alerted if there is gas in your home.

Avoiding electric shock, electrocution or fire

Improper use of generators, especially after natural disasters like Hurricane Ida, can also cause electrical problems that can result in electrocution or fires. Here’s what you can do to stay safe according to the U.S. Department of Energy:

  • Plug equipment directly into the generator using heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cords. Extension cords should be in good condition and have a wire gauge that is large enough to power your appliances without causing a short circuit.

  • Don’t plug the generator into a wall outlet. Only a licensed electrician should connect a generator to the main electrical system of your house using the proper equipment according to local electrical codes. 

  • Make sure the normal power to your house is disconnected. This is the best way to prevent electrical shorts or electricity getting sent backwards into utility lines, which can be dangerous for utility workers.

  • Make sure your generator is properly grounded. Grounding helps redirect electricity safely into the ground in order to prevent electrocution or electrical fires. that Grounding generators can prevent shocks and electrocutions. Refer to OSHA guidelines for more details on how to make sure your portable generator is properly grounded. 

  • Keep the generator dry. Use a canopy-like structure to keep generators covered in outdoor spaces and make sure your hands are dry before touching the generator. Avoid operating it in rainy conditions or inclement weather. 

  • Make sure you have enough fuel. You should know what kind and how much fuel your generator uses on a regular basis. For gasoline and diesel-powered generators, be mindful that these fuels require special chemical additives to keep them safe to use for extended periods of time. Fuel should be stored in specified containers and kept in cool, dry, well-ventilated areas that are away from potential heat sources. 

  • Before refueling your generator, make sure it is fully cool. Adding fuel to a hot generator is a fire hazard. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for refueling using the specified type or fuel. 

  • Maintain your generator regularly. Check all pipes, valves and storage tanks regularly for cracks and leaks. Replace damaged parts immediately, and keep fresh fuel in the tank to keep it running smoothly.

Some of this information was provided from the U.S. Department of Energy’s website. It is for general information. Before you engage in activities that could impact utility services, such as electricity or natural gas, contact your local utility company.