After the Storm: 3 Types of Post-Disaster Poisonings to Know, Prepare For

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A portable generator placed outside and in a dry area on the ground.

National Poison Prevention Week (March 17-23) was started in 1962 to encourage Americans to “learn of the dangers of accidental poisoning and to take such preventive measures as are warranted by the seriousness of the danger.” Fifty-seven years later, those threats—and probably some new ones—to personal and public health persist. They can also be prepared for and—in many cases—prevented.

Here are three types of post-disaster poisonings that you should be aware of, and three ways to prepare your health for each.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide (or CO) is a silent killer. You can’t see it, smell it, or taste it; yet, there it is any time you burn a fossil fuel in, for example, a car, generator, furnace, grill, or space heater.

Unintentional, non-fire related carbon monoxide (or CO) poisoning takes the lives of at least 430 people and sends another 50,000 people to the emergency department in the U.S. every year. Occurrences of accidental poisonings only increase when—in the aftermath of a disaster or emergency—people try to generate power or warmth or to cook.

Articles detailing the personal health threat posed by CO in the aftermath of hurricanes have appeared in the pages of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for decades–Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Hurricane Ike in 2008, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne in 2004. Most recently, 16 of the 129 deaths in in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina related to Hurricane Irma in 2017, were CO poisonings.

Here are three ways you can prepare for and prevent CO poisoning after a disaster.

  1. Learn how to use a back-up generator safely. Place generators outside, in a dry area, and at least 20 feet from any door, window, or vent. Never run a generator inside your home or garage, even if doors and windows are open.
  2. Install battery-powered or battery backed-up CO detectors in your home. The U.S. Fire Administration recommends that you test your devices at least once a month. Change the batteries in your CO detectors every six months. If your detector alarms, go outside for fresh air and call 911.
  3. Know the symptoms of CO poisoning. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.

Medication poisoning

Medications are, for the most part, safe when used as prescribed and dosed as directed on the label, but there is the risk of an adverse drug event anytime you bring a medicine into the house. In the wrong hands, medicines are dangerous. More often than anyone would like, the wrong hands belong to kids. About 60,000 young children are taken to emergency rooms each year because they got into medicines.

The threat of medication poisoning in kids and adults is also there in an emergency evacuation when families are forced from their homes and into a shelter, a hotel, or the home of a friend or family. Under stressful circumstances and in unfamiliar surroundings, people can forget to practice safe medication use and storage.

Here are three ways you can prepare for and prevent medication poisoning after a disaster.

  1. Keep all prescription medications and over-the-counter medicines and vitamins, including your emergency supply, Up and Away and out of the reach and sight of children and pets—this includes medicines in suitcases, purses, and “grab and go” bags.
  2. Create an Emergency Action Plan that includes important contact information, such as phone numbers for your physician, pediatrician, pharmacist, veterinarian, and the Poison Control Center: 800-222-1222.
  3. Properly dispose of unused, expired, or contaminated medicines in your medicine cabinet and emergency supply. Discard medications that touched floodwater or have changed in appearance or smell. Contact a pharmacist or healthcare provider if you are unsure about a drug’s safety.

Food poisoning

Food poisoning symptoms may range from mild to severe and may differ depending on the germ you swallowed. Eating or drinking something contaminated by floodwater, for example, can cause diarrheal disease, such as E. coli or Salmonella infection.How to clean and sanitize surfaces that do not soak up water and that may have touched floodwater

Prolonged power outages can also affect food safety. Perishable foods, such as meats, seafood, and dairy, are unsafe to eat after being in your refrigerator when the power has been off for 4 hours or more. Researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases that can cause a variety of symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.

Here are three ways you can prepare for and prevent food poisoning after a disaster.

  1. When in doubt, throw out any food that may not be safe to eat. That includes foods that have an unusual or unintended odor, color, or texture; foods that may have touched floodwater; and perishable foods that have not been refrigerated properly due to power outages. Never taste food to determine its safety. Food can make you sick even if it looks, smells, and tastes normal.
  2. Throw away wooden cutting boards, baby bottle nipples, and pacifiers if they have come into contact with floodwaters; you cannot properly sanitize them. Clean and sanitize all surfaces in your kitchen, including cutlery and countertops, that come into contact with food.
  3. Handwashing with soap and water is one of the most important practical skills you can learn (and teach to others) to avoid getting sick and spreading germs at all times, including before you handle food—disaster or not. The germs that cause foodborne illnesses can survive in many places around your kitchen, including your hands, utensils, and cutting boards.

Learn more ways to prepare your health for a disaster or an emergency at


Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that the CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor. 

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One comment on “After the Storm: 3 Types of Post-Disaster Poisonings to Know, Prepare For”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    We can all prevent the contraction, spread and adverse effect of these three types of poisoning in our localities. Prevention is feasible but the question is, our people in the community aware of this and ways of prevention?

    It now goes to the public health officers and all responsible sectors to educate our people.


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Page last reviewed: August 21, 2019
Page last updated: August 21, 2019