By Alexandra Becker
Although the Greater Houston region was mostly spared from widespread flooding and catastrophic structural damage from Hurricane Nicholas (which has since been downgraded to a tropical storm), nearly 500,000 households woke up without power. As of Tuesday afternoon, CenterPoint Energy has stated that some of those outages may last several days.
For families using generators to provide electricity for necessities ranging from medical equipment to kitchen appliances, Memorial Hermann urges safe practices to avoid carbon monoxide exposure or other health-related risks associated with generators.
“During the winter storm this past February, Memorial Hermann saw well over 100 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning—many of them children—as a result of improper generator usage or improper heating of homes,” said Dr. Samuel Prater, Associate Professor and Executive Vice-Chair of Clinical Affairs in the Department of Emergency Medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and Medical Director of Emergency Services at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. “We want to prevent a similar surge in carbon monoxide emergencies from ever happening again.”
Carbon monoxide, which is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned, is an odorless and colorless gas, so it often goes undetected, which is part of what makes it so dangerous.
“Using a generator, grill or camp stove inside a home for cooking or electricity would emit carbon monoxide, so under no circumstances should you ever use any of those appliances inside your home or near doors, windows or air vents near your home,” Prater said. “When inhaled in an enclosed space, carbon monoxide can cause sudden illness and will eventually lead to death if it is left untreated.”
Prater added that generators could also cause other traumas, including electrocution or risk of fire if used improperly. He said generators should be kept away from rain or any wet conditions, that the operator should turn the generator off and let it cool before adding fuel, and that fuel should be stored in a safe, dry location.
“Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully when using a generator. Although they can be lifesaving for anyone in need of electricity for medical devices or simply for keeping their family fed, they do pose a major health risk if used improperly,” Prater said.
He added that if someone begins feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseated while using a generator, they should go outside immediately for fresh air and call for emergency medical help.
Prater noted that hospitals throughout the Houston region are still at or near capacity with COVID-19 patients—so in the event of an emergency, a bed may not be readily available. He urged people with power to check on their neighbors and the elderly, and to offer assistance as needed.
“We are still in the middle of a pandemic so please practice the 3 W’s—wear your mask, wash your hands, and watch your distance—but we’re also still a community who takes care of each other,” Prater said. “So, as Houston is dealing with yet another challenge, let’s show up for each other and do what we can to prevent any unnecessary sickness or death.”
For those without power and without access to a generator, Prater also issued a reminder about food safety.
“If your power is out for more than four hours or if the interior temperature in your refrigerator exceeds 40 degrees, you may need to throw away perishable items including eggs, dairy products and meat,” Prater said. “If you have the means, food donation or delivery help is a wonderful way to help your neighbors and check in on them.”