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Freezing rain, cold front increase risk of carbon monoxide poisoning

Medical experts advise using caution with portable generators, alternative heat, cooking sources
Carbon monoxide detection
Carbon monoxide detectors throughout the home are key steps to take for carbon monoxide poisoning prevention. (Getty Images)

As historic cold weather sets in across the country, the Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health & Science University reminds the public about the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Colder temperatures and storms, including the freezing rain expected in the Portland-metro area this week, may leave people without power or looking for alternative sources to heat their homes. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, portable generators as well as alternative heat and cooking sources should be used with care — and always outside the home.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Feeling weak or nauseated

In serious cases, loss of consciousness or death may occur. Carbon monoxide can be life-threatening — particularly in children, the elderly or sick — but anyone is at risk of poisoning with exposure to high concentrations.

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. 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.

“This is the perfect time to check your battery-operated carbon monoxide detector or install one on every level of your home if you haven’t already done so,” said Rob Hendrickson, M.D., medical director of the Oregon Poison Center at OHSU and professor of emergency medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine. “If you need to use a generator or alternative cooking source, it is extremely important to place them outside, well away from windows, doors and ventilation systems.”

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, move to a source of fresh air and call 9-1-1.

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 — ideally, every six months — 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, be 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 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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