Doctors warn over 'dangerous' generators

After the deaths of two labourers from carbon monoxide poisoning, police reinforce safety message as sales of the devices soared during Sharjah power cuts.

SHARJAH // Police and health professionals warned yesterday of the dangers of portable generators after two men died from carbon monoxide poisoning during power cuts in Sharjah last week. Generator emissions are the main cause of "carbon monoxide intoxication" in the UAE, said Dr Malek Makarem, a family medicine consultant at the Gulf Diagnostic Centre Hospital in Abu Dhabi. He described the devices as dangerous.

The Sharjah police operations room was called last Wednesday after two Asian workers were found in their room in industrial area 11, vomiting and showing signs of severe fatigue, a spokesman said. The victims, Indian nationals in their early 20s, died on their way to hospital. A doctor from the police forensic laboratory said the men had inhaled a significant amount of carbon monoxide, which caused their deaths.

"Company managers should ensure that generators are used safely and workers lives are not in danger," said Lt Mohammed al Amin, a Sharjah police spokesman. "Next time there is another blackout we shall co-operate with the municipality to ensure that all people adhere to safety measures." His comments came as officials from the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority appeared before the emirate's Executive Council to explain the measures it has taken to resolve its power crisis.

The sale and use of generators has risen dramatically in the past week as Sharjah suffered in baking heat from its most recent period without power. Many have been sold for industrial use on a second-hand basis without operating manuals, which could lead to improper usage with potentially fatal consequences. The two victims, who have not been identified, were sharing a room behind the generator that was powering warehouses and living accommodation in the absence of electricity. The exhaust vent from the generator was apparently turned towards their room, allowing the gas to enter.

The gas is colourless and odourless, making it difficult to detect. It can cause headache, dizziness, nausea, chest pain and vomiting, and can be fatal if inhaled in large quantities. Doctors also point out that carbon monoxide poisoning is difficult to diagnose. It is often mistaken for flu, and more recently for swine flu in particular. It is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the US, claiming nearly 500 lives per year and causing more than 15,000 visits to hospital emergency departments according to the US Centres for Disease Control. "When a patient comes in complaining of being very tired and very nauseous and always has headaches, especially with the recent worries we had about the swine flu, we had to be very careful to rule out carbon monoxide poisoning," said Dr Amir Rashid, a general practitioner at the Dar Al Shifa Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi. "It is our role as doctors to find out as much as we can about the patient's life and home so we can find out whether the patient is being exposed to carbon monoxide gas."

Dr Bassam Mahboub, a member of the Emirates Allergy and Respiratory Society, warned against placing generators indoors. "One of the most important things is that you don't close the door, or when there is not enough ventilation," he said. "Then it is a major hazard." Generator retailers who have done a brisk trade during the power cuts said they were doing their best to educate buyers about their proper use. Faisal Ejjaz, who has a shop in Sharjah's industrial area 2, said they were mostly selling used generators to people who would not be expected to be those who managed them. "We would try to explain the safety side of using them by ourselves but this is sometimes difficult," he said. "Most of the generator purchasers in some companies are not the people who operate the generators." That was an unacceptable excuse for errors that result in fatalities, a forensic laboratory official said. He blamed neglect of safety rules for generators accidents. "The municipality has set out strict rules as regards to storage and maintenance and these rules should be adhered to," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not permitted to speak to the media. Officials from Sharjah Municipality declined to comment when contacted. In Dubai, three empoloyees of a construction company are currently under investigation after three workers died of carbon monoxide poisoning when a diesel-powered generator was placed under the air-conditioning unit that fed into their room. It was not the first incidence of death by generator exhaust this year in Sharjah. An Asian man died in January after inhaling carbon monoxide from a machine used in accommodation for seven people. Doctors managed to save the lives of the other six workers overcome by the fumes. Al Dhaid police blamed the death to overcrowding and improper storage of the generator. The deaths of the Indian workers brought the number of blackout-related deaths from the most recent power cuts to five. A construction worker died because of heat exhaustion, cases of which soared to four times their normal level amid the lack of air conditioning. Two Emirati men were killed in a traffic accident during the third day of cuts after traffic signals and street lights failed at a roundabout. * With additional reporting by Hala Khalaf and Surya Bhattacharya