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Carbon Monoxide Exposure Can be Deadly, Cause Permanent Organ Damage

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More than a million people are still without power in Houston and Southeast Texas after Hurricane Beryl hit the Texas Gulf Coast on Monday, but their temporary solution could harm them. As people without electricity turn to alternate energy resources, physicians are reminding Texans about the dangers of carbon monoxide exposure. The deadly gas is produced by many household items like portable generators, camp stoves and grills, often used when people lose power. Image for illustration purposes
More than a million people are still without power in Houston and Southeast Texas after Hurricane Beryl hit the Texas Gulf Coast on Monday, but their temporary solution could harm them. As people without electricity turn to alternate energy resources, physicians are reminding Texans about the dangers of carbon monoxide exposure. The deadly gas is produced by many household items like portable generators, camp stoves and grills, often used when people lose power. Image for illustration purposes
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(Editor’s note: TMA is distributing this release broadly because its message is potentially relevant to everyone, although people recovering from Hurricane Beryl’s destruction are most likely impacted by this issue today.) 

TEXAS MEDICAL ASSOCIATION – More than a million people are still without power in Houston and Southeast Texas after Hurricane Beryl hit the Texas Gulf Coast on Monday, but their temporary solution could harm them. As people without electricity turn to alternate energy resources, physicians are reminding Texans about the dangers of carbon monoxide exposure. The deadly gas is produced by many household items like portable generators, camp stoves and grills, often used when people lose power. 

“Once carbon monoxide gets into the bloodstream it is better at getting into our tissues, our cells and bodies than oxygen,” said Hilary Fairbrother, MD, a Houston-area emergency medicine physician who treated patients experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning as recently as last night. “If there was a race, carbon monoxide would win every single time.” Dr. Fairbrother also chairs the Texas Medical Association (TMA) Committee on Emergency Medical Services and Trauma.

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The human body cannot process carbon monoxide, and it can cause severe tissue damage – or death. 

TMA physicians adopted a resolution to warn people about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, during the association’s annual conference in May. 

“Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas. Once it is trapped in a building, it can reach dangerous levels very quickly,” Dr. Fairbrother said. “When people are exposed to carbon monoxide it suffocates from the inside, on a cellular level. 

“Carbon monoxide exposure can also cause severe organ damage. The heart, lungs, brain and even the eyes can be permanently affected,” added Dr. Fairbrother.  

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The Texas Department of State Health Services recommends recommends generators be placed outdoors and at least 20 feet away from buildings. DSHS also says generators should never be operated in garages, even with the doors open, and provides other guidance about safe generator use.

Dr. Fairbrother says people fall ill and die every year because of carbon monoxide exposure. Nineteen people died from carbon monoxide poisoning during the Texas snowstorm power outage in 2021 due to inappropriate use of generators, grills, heaters, vehicles running in enclosed spaces, and ice obstructing vents in gas-powered heating equipment. Improperly vented fires also cause carbon monoxide buildup.

The most common symptom people experience is a headache, Dr. Fairbrother said, and they also might act “out of it,” or experience tingling or numbness. They also could experience weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, chest pain, shortness of breath, fall unconscious, or have a seizure.

“These are all really dangerous signs the brain and the body are being suffocated.” 

She said anyone experiencing carbon monoxide exposure symptoms should get into fresh air and seek immediate medical attention. 

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 57,000 physician and medical student members. Located in Austin, TMA has 110 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans. 

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