How power outages can affect physical and mental health

How power outages can affect physical and mental health

After a spate of storms hit the United States from coast to coast last week, thousands of Americans were left without power, and some people are still struggling.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 91,000 customers are without power in Oregon, according to poweroutage.us, a website that tracks power outages throughout the country. Some people are going on nearly a week without power and heat, local reports say.

While many may view power outages as disruptions to daily life, an expert told ABC News they can come with physical and mental health effects.

“While is an inconvenience for some, it’s a life-threatening issue for others and we need to protect those whose lives it threatens,” said Dr. Joan Casey, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s department of environmental and occupational health sciences.

Power outages are particularly dangerous for those who use medical devices that require electricity such as CPAP machines, electric wheelchairs, electric heart pumps and oxygen concentrators.

A study conducted by Casey last year looking at three years of power outages found thousands of eight-plus-hour outages, which could be a long time for medically high-risk groups to go without equipment.

How power outages can affect physical and mental health

A worker from PGE works to install a new power line as crews work on restoring power to the area after a storm on Jan. 16, 2024, in Lake Oswego, Ore.

Jenny Kane/AP

“Eight hours is a relevant time period when we’re talking about health,” she said. “Once the power has been out for eight hours, I think there’s a much higher chance that the health of people living in that area are going to be affected, especially people that are relying on backup power batteries to run medical devices. Eight hours is kind of the limit that those might be able to run without being recharged.”

Casey said it can be challenging for people with respiratory conditions too, such as asthma, if there is a power outage. Their home nebulizer that requires electricity to run may not work or they may live in a building where the elevator is not running so they have to use the stairs.

This may lead to more people visiting hospitals during power outages. A study found that during the August 2003 blackout in New York City, there was a spike in respiratory hospitalizations.

Additionally, people may suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning after a power outage if they use alternative sources for fuel and heat — such as a car in a garage –which can expose someone to deadly levels of the odorless, colorless gas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are also mental health impacts of a power outage. Previous research has shown that people may experience anxiety, stress and reduced well-being due to disruptions caused by power outages

“This makes sense,” Casey said. “It’s stressful to not have access to heat. It’s stressful to worry about if your food is going to spoil or if you’re going to be able to access health care.”

“So, it’s not unexpected to me that people are experiencing these emotions these feelings during power outages,” she continued. “Especially we often know power outages are co-occurring with other weather events. So, if there’s an extreme winter storm ongoing, and there’s a power outage, that’s a stressful life event.”

As climate change worsens and causes more extreme weather events including large storms, wildfires, heat waves and hurricanes, more power outages could occur. From 2000 to 2021, approximately 83% of major outages in the U.S. were caused by weather-related events, according to the nonprofit Climate Central.

Casey said another reason worsening climate change could increase the number of outages is by people using more electricity to respond — such as more air conditioning units to respond to heatwaves — which could cause an electric grid to shut down if it overheats.

PHOTO: A worker with International Line Builders Inc. walks through melting snow and freezing rain while helping crew members turn the power back, on Jan. 18, 2024, in Portland, Ore.

A worker with International Line Builders Inc. walks through melting snow and freezing rain while helping crew members turn the power back, on Jan. 18, 2024, in Portland, Ore.

Jenny Kane/AP

She said the best way to help is to slow climate change including by improving buildings to not require as much electricity to heat and cool them and using more renewable energy.

“At the end of the day, this is not an individual level problem; It’s a societal problem and those are the solutions we’re going to need to apply if we want to solve the problem,” Casey said.

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