Generators & Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: The Invisible Killer
The tragic deaths of a family of three in Louisiana as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning after Hurricane Ida forces us all to remember the dangers of generators. Within two days of Hurricane Ida, nearly four dozen people were hospitalized in Louisiana from carbon monoxide poisoning. Unfortunately, this is expected after every hurricane because of the increased use of generators with widespread power outages.
The dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning have been well known by the generator industry for over 20 years.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, carbon monoxide is known as the "Invisible Killer" because it is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that kills more than 150 people in the United States every year from accidental non-fire related carbon monoxide poisoning associated with consumer products, including generators. There were 820 fatalities from 639 incidents between 2009 and 2019 with 84% of those fatalities being the result of incidents associated with generators only. These fatalities disproportionally affect Black or African American individuals in rural or isolated areas. Many of these incidents occurred after electric power was lost and a generator was placed inside the home. Id.
Each of those deaths and injuries was preventable. In August 2001, a carbon monoxide detector was introduced in the market with the use of generators on houseboats. Just five years later, in 2006, the Consumer Product Safety Commission staff demonstrated an integrated carbon monoxide detection system with a portable generator. While the Commission did require a warning label on generators, generator manufacturers did not institute a reasonable alternative design that included a carbon monoxide shut off or a generator which emitted less carbon monoxide until 2018.
The engineering hierarchy of controls is well known and accepted in the industry and engineering practice. Essentially, in designing a product, engineers must try to eliminate the hazards before relying on warnings to the ultimate consumer. In this instance, the design for eliminating the hazard that has injured and killed thousands of people has been available and effective for at least 15 years.
While some manufacturers have begun to offer an automatic shutoff on certain models, no generator manufacturer has included this life-saving technology in all its models even though every generator manufacturer recognizes the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you are using a generator, keep these safety tips in mind:
Never use the generator inside or close to a structure. Keep the generator at least 15 feet away from open windows and doors.
Keep the generator dry
Disconnect the power coming into your home/business
Use heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cords.