Carbon monoxide poisonings rise as people without power try to stay warm

Special Reports

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas - and it can be deadly

(Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — With the snow, ice, and fallen trees outside, many people are forgetting about the dangers they could face inside their homes with severe winter weather. 

Doctors at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center say they’ve seen an increase in carbon monoxide poisonings as people without power look for ways to stay warm by bringing generators and grills inside their homes. 

Dr. Enoch Huang, medical director of the hospital’s Hyperbaric Medicine Center, said in the last few days he’s received about a dozen calls for patients experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning. On Tuesday afternoon, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office confirmed four people died over the weekend of carbon monoxide poisoning.  

“Patients can die very easily from carbon monoxide poisoning,” Huang said. “It’s one of the most common poisonings in the world… so patients can essentially become comatose and have cardiac arrest or heart attacks.” 

The Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health and Science University also said it received 19 calls over the weekend about carbon monoxide exposure due to improperly used portable generators. Huang said people are bringing generators or charcoal grills inside to warm their homes or they’re starting wood fireplaces that haven’t been properly cleaned, causing carbon monoxide to get trapped inside. 

He said some people are going out to their vehicles to warm up, but don’t realize their tailpipes are blocked by snow or ice, causing their cabs to fill with carbon monoxide. 

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas and it can easily go unnoticed until someone starts to experience symptoms. Sometimes it’s hard to realize that the symptoms a person experiences are caused by carbon monoxide. 

“The problem with carbon monoxide is it’s often called ‘the great imitator.’ You can have any symptoms ranging from flu-like symptoms, headache, feeling ill, nausea, vomiting is very common,” Huang said. “It’s often mistaken when you go to the emergency department for the flu.” 

He said sometimes seeing a pet showing strange symptoms can be an indicator of carbon monoxide poison. 

Huang and his team treat carbon monoxide poisoning patients with their hyperbolic chamber at the hospital. When someone breathes in carbon monoxide, the gas binds to their blood cells about 200 times more than oxygen, forcing oxygen off the cell, which can eventually lead to asphyxiation. 

By placing a patient in the hyperbaric chamber, doctors can apply almost three times the normal atmospheric pressure, increasing the amount of oxygen that is dissolved in the body.  

“By flooding your body with oxygen, we can eliminate that carbon monoxide from your body much faster than just breathing oxygen in the emergency department,” Huang explained. 

Many people can experience long-term effects of carbon monoxide poisoning such as chronic headaches, chronic fatigue, loss of concentration, and loss of fine motor control. Huang said treating patients with hyperbaric oxygen can help prevent these symptoms from arising in the future. 

Overall, Huang said the best way people can protect themselves from carbon monoxide poisoning is by keeping a carbon monoxide detector inside their homes at all times. 

For some people, it’s too late – but for others, Huang is hoping to spread the message and help keep them safe.

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