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After a storm or disaster, be careful using portable generators

A portable generator can be a life-saver after a big storm, but it's crucial to use it correctly. The problem is generally carbon monoxide. This colorless, odorless gas can easily build up in enclosed spaces, and exposure to a high enough level can be fatal in minutes.

Unfortunately, many people do not realize that portable generators must be used outside. They should be placed at least 20 feet away from any door or window -- never on a porch or patio. They should never be used in an attached garage, even with the adjoining door closed. They should never be used in any indoor space. Also, you should never refuel one while it is running.

How serious is this problem? According to NPR, the majority of deaths from recent Hurricane Laura resulted from improper use of generators. Of 15 reported deaths related to the hurricane, eight were confirmed to be due to carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators. The victims ranged in age from 24 to 84.

According to officials in Lake Charles, Louisiana, five people died in one house when they ran their generator in an attached garage. The carbon monoxide entered their house through an open door.

Some people are afraid to leave their portable generators outdoors due to fears of more storm damage or even theft.

"Chain it to a tree if there's one left out in the yard," said Lake Charles's chief of police, "but don't let a generator cost your life."

Pay attention to symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

If you experience any of the following symptoms and are using a portable generator, health officials urge you to get into fresh air and then seek medical attention:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Stomach pain
  • Chest pain

Do we need safer generators?

Some health experts told NPR that the U.S. needs stronger regulation on portable generators, along with better safety features. There are models available now that can sense carbon monoxide buildup and switch the generator off. Others simply emit less of the poisonous gas.

While user error is the most common cause of injury related to portable generators, that does not necessarily mean that a person injured by one has no claim against the companies that sold or manufactured it. Under products liability law, manufacturers and distributers can sometimes be held liable for injuries related to a foreseeable misuse of the product.

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