Escaping Carbon Monoxide—The Invisible Killer

A new study, released by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), demonstrates readily available technology that can significantly reduce carbon monoxide (CO) emission rates from certain common, portable, gasoline-powered generators.  The technology is able to provide additional critical time for consumers to recognize and actually escape the deadly hazard of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Portable gasoline-powered generators kill approximately 70 people each year from carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, deadly gas created when fuel burns. For this reason, it is extremely difficult to detect.  Any heating system or appliance that burns gas, oil, wood, propane or kerosene is a potential source of carbon monoxide in the home. Carbon monoxide is the most toxic substance you’ll come into contact with in your daily life – in your home, work, garage, car, boat, etc.  It has earned the name of ‘the silent killer’. CO robs the body of its’ ability to use oxygen.

The CPSC staff’s study has outlined a method to significantly reduce the generator engine’s CO emission rate by using closed-loop electronic fuel injection and a small catalyst (the same emission control technology used on motor scooters and small motorcycles). This dramatically increased the predicted escape time by twelve times the current time, from eight minutes to 96 minutes, for the deadly outcome when consumers are in their garage while they are running their generator in there. In addition, the study showed that the predicted time for consumers inside the house to escape, as compared to the garage, was even greater.  The escape time is the time between the onset of obvious symptoms and incapacitation.

The CPSC warns consumers never to run their portable generators in their attached garages, in or even near their homes, including avoiding placement outside near the windows or vents. Generators are only for outdoor use, as far away from the home as possible. The technology does not make them safe for indoor use.  Another extremely important line of defense against CO poisoning is having CO alarms (or detectors) on each level of the home, as well as outside sleeping areas. Based on available alarm data, 93 percent of CO-related deaths involving generators took place in homes that did not have CO alarms or detectors.  Similar to smoke alarms used to alert consumers about smoke or fires, CO alarms are designed to alert consumers to dangerous levels of CO and provide enough time for them to escape before they become incapacitated.

Deaths involving portable generators have increased steadily since 1999 when generators became widely available to consumers. According to the CPSC, there have been at least 755 CO deaths involving generators from 1999 through 2011. Although the reporting of incidents for 2011 is ongoing, there were at least 73 CO related deaths involving generators last year. Generators are responsible for the largest number of estimated non-fire CO deaths associated with consumer products.  From 2006 through 2008, generators accounted for 43 percent of CO deaths compared to 33 percent for heating systems, such as furnaces.  In the past, furnaces had historically been responsible for the most CO deaths.

The use of generators has become very popular for consumer use during power outages to keep lights, electrical appliances or heating and cooling units running in their homes.  Unfortunately, the recent devastation of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast proved what a benefit these generators can provide, for those who were lucky enough to be able to find one.  Incapacitation or death can occur within minutes if consumers use a generator inside a home, garage, shed or use it outside near windows or vents, because dangerous levels of CO from a generator’s fuel-burning engine build up quickly. With the release of this study, the CPSC is urging manufacturers to voluntarily adopt a strict CO emission standard for engines used in portable gasoline-powered generators with the expectation that it will improve safety and save lives, as the marine industry did in 2005.

In 2005, manufacturers of small marine generator engines voluntarily adopted a stringent CO emission standard in order to address the hazard of acute poisoning, which was causing fatal and serious injuries to boaters who were exposed to marine generator engine exhaust. For this study, the CPSC worked with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Alabama to develop and test the portable gasoline-powered generators.

CO poisoning is often misdiagnosed because its symptoms are similar to other common illnesses such as the flu and food poisoning. Some of the symptoms associated with CO poisoning are:

At first:  headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, rapid heartbeat, loss of hearing and blurry vision.  Later on:  vomiting, disorientation, loss of consciousness, coma, seizures, respiratory failure and/or cardiac arrest.

CO poisoning should be suspected when an entire family is sick at the same time, when flu-like symptoms decrease while away from the house, when illness is present when gas appliances are in use and when excess moisture in on the interior of windows.

There have been 20,000 visits to emergency rooms, with more than 4,000 needing to be hospitalized, due to the tragic consequences of CO poisoning each year, especially during the winter months when people begin using heating devices and stoves to keep warm. Each year more than 500 people in the US die from unintentional CO poisoning according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most people install smoke alarms in their home to protect them from smoke or fire. It is just as important for a home to have a CO detector installed in each level of the home.  A good way to remember to change the batteries on these detectors is to change them whenever there is a time change.  It just may save your life! These can be purchased at local hardware stores for as low as $20.

For more information, contact a Gacovino Lake attorney at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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