Dozens Poisoned by Carbon Monoxide After Hurricane Irma

September 14, 2017 Updated: October 5, 2018

At least five people have died and 19 more have been hospitalized in Florida due to carbon monoxide poisoning in recent days. Cases like these have increased due to improper use of generators by some of the hundreds of thousands who lost power due to Hurricane Irma.

Irma swept through Florida starting Sunday and continued to cause damage in Georgia and the Carolinas. Almost 8 million customers—around 16 million people—lost power. Over 4 million customers still lacked power as of midday Wednesday.

A small generator can easily provide emergency power for a family, but its exhaust contains carbon monoxide, which can cause fatal poisoning.

On Tuesday, three died and four were hospitalized in a single case of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in Orange County.

The family left a generator running in their garage, powering a fridge, a freezer, and two fans. The garage was made into an extended home. Presumably, as the fumes accumulated, the inhabitants were poisoned.

A child from the home called 911, and the first deputy who arrived at the scene was immediately overwhelmed by fumes, WFTV reported.

Orange County Fire Rescue arrived several minutes later and found two people dead inside. Another person died right after getting out of the house.

The dead were identified as Desiree Diaz Molina and her two children, Kiara Lebroz Diaz, 16, and Jan Lebron Diaz, 13.

On Wednesday, a 7-year-old girl died of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in bed with her mother in Polk County, while a generator was running inside the home, Fox 13 reported.

Another generator was running inside a Daytona Beach home, causing the death of a woman and sending two other adults to hospital in critical condition from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Help came after a family friend knocked on their door early in the morning and decided to break through the locked screen door when he got no response. He then called 911, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported.

Carbon monoxide is especially dangerous because it is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, and it bonds with red blood cells more easily than oxygen. When a person inhales it, the bloodstream will start to deliver carbon monoxide to the body before it does oxygen. But cells can’t survive without oxygen, especially brain cells.

“Brain cells are extremely sensitive to oxygen deprivation and can begin to die within five minutes after oxygen supply has been cut off,” says the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

It is recommended to only use generators outside, at least 20 feet from home or even a tent, and to point the exhaust away from people and structures. One may also use a carbon monoxide detector.

Generators can cause other hazards too, including fires or electrocution. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides a list of recommendations to avoid such hazards, such as keeping the generator dry and grounded, letting it cool down before refueling, and using proper extension cords.

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