As power outages continue, one of the real dangers Houstonians are facing isn’t just the cold, but carbon monoxide. Since Monday, area hospitals have treated hundreds of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, including a handful of deaths, according to NPR, as more than one million Houstonians use generators, stoves, space heaters, and more to try to stay warm during Winter Storm Uri and the subsequent statewide-blackout.
Not actually sure what carbon monoxide is, and why it’s so dangerous? We got a safety primer from Sharon Cooksey, fire safety educator for Kidde, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of fire safety products, like CO alarms and fire extinguishers.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a type of natural gas that’s “the byproduct of incomplete combustion,” says Cooksey. It’s found in the fumes when you burn natural materials, like gasoline, propane, coal, wood, oil. Anytime you use your car or truck, a small engine, stove, lantern, grill, fireplace, gas range, furnace, etc., you’re producing CO.
One of the things that makes CO so dangerous is that it’s hard to detect—it’s colorless, odorless, and can potentially kill you in minutes. “It’s known as the silent killer,” says Cooksey.
Okay, but how does it affect me?
“When CO enters into your system,” Cooksey says, “it basically prevents your body from processing oxygen.” In other words, it deprives your vital organs, like the heart and brain, of the oxygen it needs. In large enough quantities, carbon monoxide will cause you to pass out, and in some cases, suffocate.
What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?
According to the CDC, CO poisoning can appear similarly to “flu-like” symptoms, so in these pandemic times, it could also potentially appear like Covid-19, but, says Cooksey, there is a significant difference.
“Most of the symptoms are mirrored. Covid, the flu, and CO—they all feel a lot alike,” Cooksey says. “Covid and the flu have a fever, generally. CO poisoning does not.”
Below are CO symptoms, according to the CDC and the Mayo Clinic:
- Upset stomach
- Nausea and vomiting
- Chest pain and shortness of breath
- Blurred vision
What should I do if I suspect there’s carbon monoxide in my house?
“If a family suspects there is CO,” says Cooksey, “the very first thing they need to do is get out.” Get to fresh air—she calls oxygen a “short-term antidote”—and call 9-1-1. Let the firefighters deal with the carbon monoxide, while you seek medical attention.
What should I know about carbon monoxide alarms?
One of the reasons carbon monoxide is so dangerous is that, “generally speaking, it weighs the same as air,” says Cooksey. “It mixes with the air, so that means anywhere air is, so can CO be.” Because of this, if two bedrooms are side-by-side, one could have lethal amounts of CO and the other could be fine. Have an alarm at least on every level of your home, and one by the bedrooms, Cooksey recommends.
Make sure you check and change the batteries of your alarm regularly. Cooksey says the lifespan of a CO alarm is about seven years, so you’ll need to make sure yours is up-to-date (a regular smoke alarm lasts around 10 years). If you can buy an alarm with a built-in, 10-year battery, that would be best, she says. If you have a plug-in alarm, make sure it has a battery back-up.
“We want you to have a battery back-up. Always,” says Cooksey. “For reasons like this: When the power goes out is when people turn to devices that might off-put CO, and we want your CO alarms to work.”
People keep telling me to not sit in my car in the garage. Why?
During this cold, many people have taken to sitting in their cars, as it’s their only source of power, to get warm and charge their phones. That’s fine, says Cooksey, just “make sure that your car is not attached to your house.”
What she means is if your garage is attached to your house, back your car out onto the driveway or the street. Attached garages typically share the same ventilation system as your house, so while you could be poisoning yourself in your garage with the fumes coming from the burning gasoline, you could also be unintentionally leaking dangerous fumes into your home.
Along that train of thought, Cooksey urged people to not use grills or hibachis inside their attached garages either.
“Even if you think the garage door is open and you’re letting fresh air in,” she says, “if carbon monoxide is bing off-put, there’s just too much of a risk that that CO is going to come into your house and that not enough oxygen is going to come in and wash out that CO.”
What are other sources of carbon monoxide?
Be wary of generators, as some can produce as much carbon monoxide as 100 cars, Cooksey says. Do not bring them inside your home or even your garage. “Please never ever even consider running a generator indoors,” she says. “Ever.”
Keep generators outside, 20 feet away from the home, and away from any kind of ventilation system that could suck that generator’s CO into the home.
Chimneys with wood-burning fireplaces can also be a source of CO if they’re not well-maintained. Cooksey recommends getting your chimney serviced annually.
What should I know about fires?
Thirty years ago, people had almost 17 minutes to get out of a house after a flame sparked, says Cooksey. These days, with the high prevalence of synthetic materials in homes, people only have two-to-three minutes to escape before everything goes whoosh.
Cooksey says people need to be careful with the different ways they’re staying warm to prevent fires. If you’re using a space heater, it has a high voltage, so it has to be plugged into a wall outlet, not an extension cord.
Also, be wary of lit candles and where you put them. Make sure they are at least a foot away from anything flammable, like curtains or blankets. “We strongly recommend people use flameless or battery-operated candles,” Cooksey says. “Real candles are a real danger.”
And remember: the real danger isn't the flames. "Fires will burn you," she says, "but the smoke will kill you."