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Caution advised when using portable generators, alternative heat, cooking sources

Oregon Poison Center at OHSU sees increase in calls about carbon monoxide exposure during recent winter storm
Residential generator outdoors in the snow, atop a wooden platform
The Oregon Poison Center at OHSU cautions that improper use of power generators and alternative heat or cooking sources can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. (Getty Images)

The weekend’s winter ice and snowstorm has left many Oregonians in the Portland-Metro area without power and some are looking for alternative sources to heat their homes. Portable generators and alternative heat and cooking sources should be used with care - and always outside the home -- to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Over the weekend, the Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health & Science University received 19 calls about carbon monoxide exposure due to improperly used portable generators and attempts at heating by burning of wood or coal indoors. The center typically receives about one carbon monoxide call each weekend.

Robert Hendrickson, M.D.
Robert Hendrickson, M.D. (OHSU)

“It is extremely important not to use outdoor grills or generators inside your home. These appliances should be used outdoors, well away from windows, doors and ventilation systems,” said Rob Hendrickson, M.D., medical director of the Oregon Poison Center and professor of emergency medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Carbon monoxide is a tasteless, odorless gas produced whenever fossil fuel is burned. It is produced by gas-powered heating systems, and other gas, oil or coal-burning appliances. Carbon monoxide is also produced by portable grills and camp stoves. Malfunctioning or improperly used appliances, as well as outdoor cooking devices used indoors, can result in carbon monoxide build-up in an enclosed space. Vehicle exhaust from a leak in a vehicle’s exhaust system, a blocked tailpipe or vehicles left running in attached garages or near open windows can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, lightheadedness and feeling weak or nauseated. In serious cases, loss of consciousness or death may occur. Carbon monoxide can be life-threatening, especially for children, the elderly or sick, but anyone is at risk of poisoning with exposure to high concentrations.

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, move to a source of fresh air and call 1-800-222-1222 for poison help, or call 911.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is preventable. Follow these tips to reduce your risk of carbon monoxide exposure:

  • Install a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detector on every level of your home. Check or replace the device’s battery regularly to ensure detectors are working properly.
  • Have your fireplace, heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal-burning appliance serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi or portable camping stove inside a home, tent, car or camper.
  • Portable generators should be used outdoors at least 25 feet away from a window, door or vent. Basements and garages are not safe locations to run a generator, even with doors and windows open.
  • It is not safe to use a gas range or oven to heat a home.
  • If you use a fireplace, make sure that your vents and flues are free of debris, especially if winds are high. Flying debris can block ventilation lines.
  • Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage.
  • It is not safe to use a vehicle or motor home engine to heat a parked vehicle or camper if you are staying in it overnight.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a poison emergency, call the Oregon Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. A trained health care provider is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The call is free and confidential. Poison prevention education and other poison safety resources are available at https://www.ohsu.edu/oregon-poison-center.

Accredited by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the Oregon Poison Center is a designated regional poison control center for Oregon, Alaska and Guam.

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