The Full Story
Portable generators are used during many kinds of power outages: hurricanes, snowstorms, damaged power lines, etc. Most people use generators to heat their homes, provide power for cooking and keeping food cold, and to listen to a radio for updates.
A new use for portable generators has emerged: keeping video games and televisions going during power outages. Shortly after a hurricane in Texas, 75 percent of children treated for carbon monoxide poisoning had been playing video games powered by portable generators. Several of these children were critically ill, needing treatment in a hyperbaric chamber to treat their poisoning.
Carbon monoxide does not respect weather conditions, age, or anything else. If you burn something that uses fuel, carbon monoxide gas will be released. If a portable generator is set up indoors, outdoors under a window, in an attached garage, or in an enclosed space, anyone around will breathe in carbon monoxide.
Carbon monoxide takes the place of oxygen in our blood stream. It circulates to the brain, heart, and every other organ with every heartbeat. At low levels, carbon monoxide poisoning causes headache, drowsiness, and flu-like symptoms, but without a fever. At higher levels, symptoms may include chest pain, seizures, coma, and death.
Any time a portable generator is used, it MUST be used outdoors, in a well-ventilated area, away from windows and doors into the home. A battery-powered carbon monoxide alarm will function during a power outage; there should be one outside every sleeping area in the home.
Carbon monoxide poisoning from generators is such a health threat warning labels are required. They warn consumers that "Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES".
If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, immediately go outside. Then, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 for treatment advice. If someone is not breathing, won't wake up, or is having seizures, call 911 immediately.
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Fife CE, Smith LA, Maus EA, McCarthy JJ, Zoehler MZ, Hawkins T, Hampson NB. Dying to play video games: carbon monoxide poisoning from electrical generators used after Hurricane Ike. Pediatrics. 2009;123:e1035–e1038.
- Any time a portable generator is used, it MUST be used outdoors, in a well-ventilated area, away from windows and doors into the home.
- A battery-powered carbon monoxide alarm will function during a power outage; there should be one outside every sleeping area in the home.
This Really Happened
After Hurricane Ike made landfall on the Texas coast in August 2008 and advanced to Houston and beyond, almost 2 million customers, 95% of all public utility customers in the region, were without power in 11 South Texas counties. Thirty-seven individuals exposed to carbon monoxide from gasoline-powered electrical generators were treated or triaged in the Houston area by the Memorial Hermann Hospital-Texas Medical Center staff in the first 36 hours after landfall of the hurricane. Most gasoline-powered electrical generators were operated while located in garages attached to the home. Among the 9 incidents where the reason for generator use was determined, 5 were being used to power video games and 1 to watch movies or power televisions. The 5 events in which generators were powering video games resulted in 75% (15 of 20) of the pediatric carbon monoxide poisonings.
Generators were the cause of almost all carbon monoxide poisonings after Hurricane Katrina. However, in those cases, they were thought used to power home air conditioners and/or for food refrigeration. This is the first report in the literature indicating that generators are commonly used to power video games and other entertainment for children and young adults in the days immediately after a hurricane.
Reference: Fife, C.E., Smith, L.A., Maus, E.A., McCarthy, J.J., Zoehler, M.Z., Hawkins, T., & Hampson, N.B. (2009). Dying to play video games: carbon monoxide poisoning from electrical generators used after Hurricane Ike. Pediatrics. 2009;123(6):e1035–e1038. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2008-3273