SEATTLE – (Jan. 19, 2012) – With widespread power outages as a result of today’s ice storm, and with predictions that some will be without power through the weekend, physicians at Virginia Mason’s Center for Hyperbaric Medicine are concerned that efforts to stay warm will put people’s lives in danger.
“The rule of thumb is that if it burns, whether it is a gas range, a lantern or camp stove, a propane heater or briquettes from an hibachi, don’t use it inside to stay warm. If your power is out and you run a generator, make sure it is placed well away from the house and garage,” said James Holm, MD, medical director of the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine. “Anything that burns consumes oxygen and emits carbon monoxide (CO). It doesn’t take very long for the levels to become lethal in a confined space.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 500 people die of CO poisoning each year in the U.S., compared to about 2,500 people who die in fires. But most people would be surprised to learn that more than 15,000 people each year are injured by carbon monoxide – about 2,000 MORE people than are injured in fires.
During extended power outages following a 2009 windstorm, the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine treated more than 300 cases of CO poisoning that resulted from people using propane, wood and charcoal heat sources to stay warm without proper ventilation. The same thing happened in 2006, when eight people died and scores were poisoned during another extended power outage caused by winter storms.
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, confusion and loss of consciousness. People who are sleeping or who have been drinking alcohol can die from CO poisoning without ever displaying symptoms.
“Obviously people need to be careful when using combustibles for heat during a power outage,” said Dr. Holm. “But the reality is that in nearly all of the cases we treated during these outages, CO poisoning would have been prevented if the victims had been using a battery-operated carbon monoxide alarm. These are readily available for $30 or so, which is a small price to pay to save a life.”
Here are some tips to follow when trying to stay warm during a power outage:
Never use a gas range or oven to heat a home. Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern or portable camping stove inside a home, tent or camper. Never run a generator, pressure washer or any gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage or other enclosed structure, even if doors or windows are open, unless the equipment is professionally installed and vented. Keep vents and flues free of debris, especially during high winds. Flying debris can block ventilation lines. Never run a motor vehicle, generator, pressure washer or any gasoline-powered engine outside an open window, door or vent where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.
Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage. If conditions are too cold, seek shelter with friends or at a community shelter. Install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in every heated building. If CO poisoning is suspected, call 9-1-1.
Hyperbaric medicine delivers oxygen at greater-than-atmospheric pressure to treat a variety of conditions including decompression sickness experienced by divers (“the bends”), carbon monoxide poisoning and chronic wounds resulting from radiation therapy and other injuries.
The Center for Hyperbaric Medicine at Virginia Mason is the primary emergency hyperbaric treatment center for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. It has the largest and only hospital-based, multi-patient hyperbaric chamber north of Los Angeles and west of Denver. It maintains the national database on CO poisoning for the Centers for Disease Control.
For more information about the Virginia Mason Center for Hyperbaric Medicine, go to VirginiaMason.org/hyberbaric
About Virginia Mason Medical Center
Virginia Mason Medical Center, founded in 1920, is a nonprofit comprehensive regional health care system in Seattle that combines a primary and specialty care group practice of more than 440 physicians with a 336-bed acute-care hospital.
Virginia Mason operates a network of clinics throughout the Puget Sound area, and Bailey-Boushay House, a skilled-nursing facility and chronic care management program for people with HIV/AIDS. The medical center is affiliated with Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason, internationally recognized in autoimmune disease research. Virginia Mason is known for applying manufacturing principles to health care to improve quality and patient safety. For more information, visit VirginiaMason.org or Facebook.com/VMcares or follow @VirginiaMason on Twitter.