Even outdoors, generators pose risks

A portable generator is frequently the culprit in domestic carbon monoxide poisonings—even when the device sits outside the home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the Florida Department of Health collected data from 10 Florida hospitals on people diagnosed with unintentional carbon monoxide poisonings between August and October 2004. Four major hurricanes pounded the state during that period, causing power outages.

The researchers identified 167 people treated for nonfatal poisonings. The illnesses stemmed from 51 incidents, 46 of which involved portable generators.

Using medical records and interviews, the team found that 22 of the generators were outside the house and garage. The generator was in the garage in 15 incidents, inside the house in 7 of them, and in an unknown location in 2 others. Outside generators were, on average, 7 feet from a dwelling.

“We’ve come to think that people are being poisoned because they are putting generators inside,” says team member David Van Sickle, now at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But even people trying to use the devices safely are getting poisoned, he says.

Generator manufacturers and public health agencies should determine a safe distance for the devices, the team says in the April American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Future generator technologies might reduce carbon monoxide emissions.

Aimee Cunningham

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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