Extreme heat, power outages raise health concerns for Americans

Workers remove parts of a fallen tree from a telephone line July 1, 2012 in Hyattsville, Maryland. The Washington DC area was hit by severe thunderstorm Friday night knocking trees down and leaven more then 400,000 without power during a record setting heat wave. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages

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Workers remove parts of a fallen tree from a telephone line, July 1, 2012 in Hyattsville, Md.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages
(CBS News) A weekend heat wave that's left millions without power may carry with it potentially harmful health risks, experts said Monday.

As of Monday morning, about 2 million customers on the East Coast - and even as far west as Illinois - are without power and likely will be for several more days. Since Friday, the severe weather that's caused storms, high winds and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees has been blamed for at least 22 deaths, most of which were from trees falling on homes or cars.

Sweltering heat, no power: Dangerous 1-2 punch

The power outages and extreme heat are a dangerous one-two punch. With temperatures still above the 90s in some of the areas affected with power concerns, how can Americans stay safe?

Ellen Yard, an epidemiologist at the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, tells HealthPop, "It's important to remember that heat illness is preventable."

People exposed to extreme heat might develop heat exhaustion or a medical emergency called heat stroke. Signs of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, looking pale, headaches, nausea, vomiting and fainting.

Heat stroke may present in people as an extremely high body temperate, red/hot skin, rapid pulse, throbbing headache, and slipping into unconsciousness. If someone is showing signs of heat stroke, call 911 immediately for emergency care. Some people may be especially vulnerable to heat stroke, including the elderly, young, or people with chronic diseases and weakened immune systems. Yard encourages others to check in on high-risk relatives and friends during extreme heat.

To prevent heat-related illness, Yard said people should stay out of the sun as much as possible during extreme heat, and if they have to go out, should try to do so in early morning or later in the evening, when temperatures cool. It's also important, she said, to drink two to four glasses of water per hour and to avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugary drinks which may dehydrate a person more. A cold shower or bath could also help stave off heavy heat.

Yard said Americans should also stay in air conditioned rooms as much as possible,  and if they don't have A/C, should try to find a library or shopping mall to cool off for a bit.

"Even a few hours a day [in air conditioning] is better than nothing," she said.

But air conditioning may be hard to come by in an electrical outage, leading some Americans to turn to backup generators or other power sources. Using a generator may significantly raise a family's risk for carbon monoxide poisoning, said Fuyuen Yip, an epidemiologist for the CDC's air pollution and asthma epidemiology team. The gas is found in combustion fumes, which are produced by generators or stoves, small gas engines, lanterns, gas ranges or by burning charcoal and wood, Yip told HealthPop. During an emergency in which a power outage occurs, these energy sources can build up carbon monoxide to poisonous enough levels to harm human and animals in your home.

Yip said carbon monoxide can be tough to spot because it's a colorless and odorless gas, which is why it's important to have a CO monitor or alarm that measures dangerous levels of the gas.

"Like heat [illness], carbon monoxide poisoning is preventable," Yip said.

To reduce risk for poisoning, the CDC recommends people place their generators at least 20 feet from their homes. Besides proper distance, people shouldn't be tempted to bring a grill, stove or other heat source in the home for cooking and should keep them outdoors when in use. People experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning may feel headache, lightheadness or nausea that can lead to a loss of consciousness; about 450 people die of CO poisoning each year, says Yip.

With any outage, people should be aware that food in their refrigerators and freezers may not be safe to eat after longer than two hours without power. The CDC recommends not opening a freezer door if you can avoid it, because a full freezer will hold food safely for 48 hours. Inexpensive stryrofoam coolers with ice may keep refrigerated foods like milk, meat, fish, eggs and leftovers cool during an outage. Keep a food thermometer handy, the CDC reccomends, and throw away any food that has a temperature higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

People in need of additional resources can check with the American Red Cross, which is offering cooling centers and shelter in areas affected by the heat wave and power outages, as well as areas affected by recent wildfires out West and Florida floods from tropical storm Debby.

The CDC has more tips on what to do when power goes out during a weather emergency.

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