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Generators pose carbon monoxide risk post-Sandy

The destruction from Superstorm Sandy is far-reaching, with power outages still affecting more than 4.6 million homes and businesses across the Eastern seaboard and at least 75 people dead.

That has led many to turn to gas-powered generators or other sources for heat. However, officials warn that those alternative power sources could pose major health risks, namely carbon monoxide poisoning.

"The risk for carbon monoxide poisoning due to indoor use of propane stoves or generators is a major concern of public health officials after the storm," Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told in an email. "The only safe use of such generators or stoves is outdoors, well away from any windows that could transmit fumes indoors."

Glatter said poisoning could rapidly lead to asphyxiation and loss of consciousness.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is poisonous to breathe but produced by many types of equipment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. People are at risk for poisoning following a hurricane or flood when they use equipment such as generators, pressure washers, charcoal grills, camp stoves, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning devices inside the home, basement or garage or at a location less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers, a network of 57 local poison centers, warns many people use generators improperly by placing them too close to homes, in garages or outside bedroom windows.

"Many poison emergencies happen when electrical power is lost in the period during and after natural disasters like hurricanes and winter storms," Dr. S. Rutherfoord Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center, said in an emailed statement. "An entirely preventable emergency is carbon monoxide poisoning. That's why we encourage anyone who loses power and plans to use a portable generator to follow some key safety steps."

Key safety tips from the CDC to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning include never using a gas range or oven to heat a home following a power outage, never running a generator in an enclosed space like a basement or garage -- even if the doors or windows are open -- unless a professional installed and vented it.

"If you do choose to use a generator, do not overload the generator -- only one or two appliances at most should be used at time," Dr. Glatter recommends.

If you're affected by the storm and looking for a heat source to cook, the CDC says never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern or portable camping stove inside a home, tent or camper.

Other heat sources such as space heaters may also create poisoning risks.

"Space heaters also create carbon monoxide," New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a Wednesday press conference. "You should have a battery-operated carbon monoxide alarm. A lot of people do. We keep recommending this every year. It'd be a good time to test the batteries."

Anyone experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning should call a doctor. If conditions are too hot or cold in your home, seek shelter with friends or at a community shelter.

The CDC has more on carbon monoxide poisoning after a disaster.

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