UIHC warns against monoxide poisoning after derecho; 3,200 in Johnson County still without power

In the aftermath of the storm called derecho that hit Iowa on Monday, UIHC warns eastern Iowans against carbon monoxide poisoning and stresses generator safety.


Katie Goodale

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics as seen on Sept. 17, 2018.

Rachel Schilke, News Editor

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics has seen an uptick in carbon monoxide poisoning since Monday, when a derecho tore through Iowa, leaving thousands without power and flattening homes, roads, and fields.

UIHC reported that as of Friday afternoon, there were three cases of carbon monoxide poisoning that occurred on Thursday, when it usually sees approximately 40 cases in a year. Of the cases, several included children, the report said. 

UIHC Safety Director Mike Holder said no one at the hospital could remember a time when more than one or two cases of carbon monoxide poisoning per month occurred, and had concerns for the weekend following the storm. 

“I thought it was going to be a horrible weekend,” Holder said. “With the three cases we had on Thursday and coming into the weekend with all of the power issues, it was definitely a red flag.”

He said running generators, chainsaws, and gas grills in garages or semi-open spaces does not provide sufficient airflow and can still cause carbon monoxide poisoning. All three cases reported by UIHC were due to individuals using generators in their garages with the doors open. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Holder said, “…which is why I am so concerned with getting this message out.”

In Johnson County, about 3,200 residents are without power five days after the storm. MidAmerican spokesperson Geoff Greenwood said power should be turned on for its 1,600 remaining customers without power by Saturday evening. In hardest-hit Linn County, 64,000 people are still without power, which may not be restored until Tuesday, utilities say, due to the sheer number of downed power lines. 

He said individuals should be using generators at least 20 feet from their dwelling and should not be used in garages, even with doors open. Anything that uses a fossil fuel should be used with caution and individuals should take an extra moment to make sure they are being safe, he said.

UIHC recommended for residents to pay attention to potential carbon monoxide symptoms: headaches, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. Those who believe they have carbon monoxide poisoning need to seek treatment within six hours of the onset of symptoms. 

Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Dave Wilson said there have been no cases of carbon monoxide-related injuries of Johnson County residents. Holder said the cases that arrived at UIHC were local residents, but could not provide any specific identification.

It is not unusual for patients from other Iowa counties to come to UIHC for carbon monoxide poisoning, Wilson said, as UIHC has the only 24/7 emergency treatment hyperbaric oxygen facility in eastern Iowa, and is the only facility that treats children.

Holder said the UIHC hyperbaric oxygen facility is a multi-space facility that can treat between one and six individuals, and allows for staff to enter the pressurized oxygen chamber to provide anything from extra pillows and water to offering assistance in case of emergency.

He added that the other 14 facilities in eastern Iowa are mono-space chambers and cannot be accessed immediately in case of an emergency, which is why they do not treat children. 

UIHC works closely with the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, so the facility has the knowledge and expertise to work with children, Holder said. 

“It’s all about the ability and the willingness to treat children,” he said. “It is difficult to rationalize with a five-year old child through the glass. We can hold their hand, do coloring books with them, and be there for them. They are a unique part of the population, and we have treated some kids before, and they were even entertaining me.”

Wilson said as of 11 a.m. on Friday, there have been no fatalities within Johnson County due to the storm, but he anticipates an increase of injuries over the weekend, as residents begin cleaning and restoring parts of their homes affected by the storm. In the state, at least four people were killed in the storm including a Solon resident who was biking in Linn County. 

He said he predicted injuries such as dehydration and heart attacks, from chainsaws and possible carbon monoxide poisonings.

“Typically during any storm, there is an increase of fires due to using candles,” Wilson said. “So, we really try to push fire safety, and people tend to be running generators, as well. Situations such as chainsaw injuries and carbon monoxide from generators are usually results of clean-up operations after a storm.”

Wilson said between noon and midnight on Monday, 27 storm-related ambulance calls were placed. Injuries predominantly came from high profile vehicles flipping over. A child and a truck driver were transported to UIHC.

The City of Iowa City Saturday opened a disposal site to drop off storm debris — located at 1200 S. Riverside Dr. open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Spoiled food can also be dropped off from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.