As power companies and government officials work to restore power to the millions affected by Irma in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, many residents will turn to generators to supply electricity in the coming days.
It could take weeks to restore power to everyone in Florida, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said Monday at the White House.
But generators can pose their own health risks. After Hurricane Ike struck Texas in 2008, leaving millions without power, the Center for Disease Control recorded 54 storm-related carbon monoxide exposures and at least seven deaths. All of the deaths occurred in residential settings and all happened within four days of Hurricane Ike hitting the Galveston, Texas area.
It was not the first time. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, there were 51 reported carbon monoxide exposure cases involving generators, according to the CDC. Five people died as a result of the poisoning.
In 2015, a father and his seven children died from carbon monoxide exposure while they slept after he used a generator to heat their home.
Between 1999 and 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported there were 800 poisoning deaths in the U.S. caused by portable generators.
“Generators produce high levels of CO in their exhaust. Carbon monoxide around a generator and its exhaust tube can build up within minutes, even outdoors. Carbon monoxide can linger for hours, even after the generator is shut off,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Victims can experience headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea and vomiting at low levels of carbon monoxide exposure. At higher concentrations, it can lead to loss of consciousness and death, according to Travelers, which provides tips for carbon monoxide safety tips.
You should not run engines, including generators, in closed areas like a basement or garage. Even if the garage door is open, carbon monoxide — an odorless, colorless gas — can build up to dangerous levels.
The CDC has a list of way to prevent carbon monoxide exposure. The CDC recommends not using a gasoline-powered generator less than 20 feet from any window, door or vent, and it recommends not running a generator in a garage even with the door open.