CHARLOTTE, NC — At least four people died and hundreds became ill from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in North Carolina in the wake of an ice storm on Dec. 4-5 that destroyed electric utility lines in much of the state.

More than 1 million customers were without power, some for several days, in North and South Carolina.

The deaths were attributed to attempts to heat living spaces with alternative energy sources ranging from kerosene heaters and charcoal grills to emergency generators running indoors. At least two other deaths resulted from heating-related fires.

National Guard volunteers went from door to door Dec. 8 in 21 counties of the Tarheel State to warn residents about CO dangers, as well as other storm and power-outage hazards.

Ron Howell, industrial hygiene consultant with the North Carolina State Health Department, said the state’s Office of Emergency Management worked with the National Guard to publish and distribute the warning flyers. A secondary notice was being considered.

He told The News that he was greatly concerned when he went to his local Home Depot store and saw customers lined up with kerosene heaters. Those can create not only carbon monoxide but other toxic gases, he said.

The CO deaths included that of a construction worker who brought a charcoal grill into a bedroom shared by his wife and baby. An elderly resident in Cleveland County died Dec. 7 from running a generator on an enclosed sun porch in his home. A Greensboro woman died from apparent CO poisoning; she had been running a gasoline-powered generator in her home. A Charlotte woman died Dec. 8 from CO poisoning after burning charcoal in her apartment fireplace.

An 83-year-old Greensboro man died as a result of a fire in his home, apparently started from a wood stove in his basement that he used for cooking and heating his home during the power outage. A chimney fire that started after power had been restored in Carrboro resulted in death for a seven-year-old boy.

After the ice storm battered cities from Oklahoma to North Carolina, Coleman Powermate, Inc., a maker of portable generators, established a toll-free hotline (800-445-1805) to answer any generator-related questions.

The power equipment manufacturer also launched a national public awareness campaign to communicate important generator safety tips, including:

  • Never run a generator indoors or in a poorly ventilated area such as a garage. Generators, like all other engines, exhaust CO gas.

  • Do not connect generators to internal (home) wiring, or install a transfer switch to cut power from the utility pole and switch it to the generator.

  • Refuel generators only in well-ventilated areas.

  • Use adequately sized power cords to carry electrical loads.

    Publication date: 12/23/2002