An outbreak of carbon monoxide poisoning after a major ice storm in Maine
Unintentional carbon monoxide (CO) exposure kills over 500 people in the U.S. annually. Outbreaks of CO poisoning have occurred after winter storms. The objective of this study was to describe clinical features and identify important risk factors of a CO poisoning outbreak occurring after a major ice storm. The study design included a case series of CO poisoning patients, a telephone survey of the general community, and a case-controlled study of households using specific CO sources. The setting was the primary service area of four hospital emergency departments located in the heavily storm-impacted interior region of Maine. Participants included all patients with a laboratory-confirmed diagnosis of CO poisoning during the 2 weeks after the storm onset, and a population-based comparison group of 522 households selected by random digit dialing. There were 100 cases identified, involving 42 common-source exposure incidents, most of them during the first week. Though classic CO symptoms of headache, dizziness, and nausea predominated, 9 patients presented with chest pain and 10 were asymptomatic. One patient died and 5 were transferred for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Gasoline-powered electric generators were a CO source in 30 incidents, kerosene heaters in 8, and propane heaters in 4. In the community, 31.4% of households used a generator after the ice storm. The strongest risk factor for poisoning was locating a generator in a basement or an attached structure such as a garage. Cases of CO poisoning with various presentations can be expected in the early aftermath of a severe ice storm. Generators are a major CO source and generator location an important risk factor for such disasters.