You are here:

Utility cutoffs fuel carbon monoxide poisonings

By JoNel Aleccia

January 10 — Severe winter weather and a stormy economy could combine to make one of the season’s common killers, carbon monoxide poisoning, even worse this year, public health and safety officials say.

Coast-to-coast snowstorms and power outages, paired with spiking rates of utility shutoffs spurred by record unemployment, are likely to increase the accidental exposures that typically send more than 20,000 people to the emergency room and kill nearly 500 each year.

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to see a big bump in carbon monoxide poisonings this winter,” said Dr. Eric J. Lavonas, associate director of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver. “This economy is the perfect storm.”

Deprived of power, people are firing up gas-powered generators and bringing barbecue grills indoors, forgetting the deadly consequences of the colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that can lead to illness, brain damage — and death.

“We see it during power outages and we see it during bad economic times,” said Jim Burns, past president and spokesman for the National Association of State Fire Marshals. “Unfortunately, people in desperate times take all means to stay warm.”

In Redwood City, Calif., eight members of a large family, including several children, were sickened Dec. 17 when they fired up a gasoline-powered generator in the basement of a house where electricity had been disconnected for nonpayment.

“We get a front row seat to a bad economy, honestly,” said Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman, whose crew responded to the incident.

Across the country, the number of terminated utility accounts among the nation’s 95.6 million residential energy customers is skyrocketing as the economy sinks, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.

“Where it might be 2 percent to 3 percent used to get shut off, now it’s 7 percent to 8 percent getting getting shut off,” he said. “Families that were middle class last week are not middle class anymore.”

In some places, it’s much worse than that. In Detroit, hard hit by unemployment and bad weather, utility terminations in October were up 9 percent over 2006 levels and 20 percent over 2007 levels, a rise that may be partially attributed to a new recording system, said Len Singer, a spokesman for DTE Energy, the electric and natural gas supplier. That means 14,000 households were cut off from power, out of a customer base of about 3 million.

It’s too early in the season to document a trend in carbon monoxide poisonings, said Lavonas, an emergency room doctor who has focused on the issue. But cases of carbon monoxide poisoning have been on the rise, according to an August report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of patients seen in the nation’s emergency rooms for carbon monoxide poisoning climbed by 36 percent, from 15,200 a year between 2001 and 2003 to 20,636 a year between 2004 and 2006, the report said.

Generators, charcoal grills indoors Recent anecdotal reports show that families cut off from utilities have resorted to dangerous measures, including bringing generators indoors for power and firing up everything from barbecue grills to portable patio warmers for heat.

In Paramount, Calif., a mother and two teens ages 14 and 18 were overcome by the gas in November when they used a charcoal grill to heat their home. And in Minneapolis, two men and a 13-year-old boy died of carbon monoxide poisoning in October when they used a gas generator in a basement after the power was cut off.