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Carbon monoxide from portable generators is a killer. Has enough been done to stop it?

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The stories from Chicago and across the Midwest are eerily similar. A home is left without electricity as the weather turns bitterly cold or blazing hot. Someone starts a portable generator in a basement or garage. Within minutes, carbon monoxide from the generator has claimed another life.

It happened in January in Battle Creek, Michigan, when a young couple was found dead on an air mattress in a home they were helping to renovate. Their 5-month-old son survived, which police called a miracle.

In 2017, a Morgan Park woman was killed by carbon monoxide fumes from a generator running in an enclosed space on a June day when the temperature hit the mid-80s. Days later, Chicago firefighters rescued a man and his teenage son from an Englewood home where a generator in the basement had sent carbon monoxide levels soaring.

In October 2013, a family of four perished in their new home in Merrillville, Indiana. They had just moved in, and the utilities weren’t connected yet. So they were using a generator they put in the attached garage for heat and power.

“This was their first night in the new home,” says Margaret Kelly, a Chicago State University professor who worked with Kennetha Purnell, 38, who was killed along with her husband, 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. “It was a terrible tragedy.”

Since 2005, nearly 1,000 people nationwide have died of carbon monoxide poisoning from portable, gasoline-powered generators. It’s estimated that one portable generator can emit as much carbon monoxide as 400 idling cars.

There’s no federal law or rule governing portable generators, though technology exists to make them safer.

Instead, there are two voluntary standards — and, as a result, a marketplace filled with models that lack safety features such as carbon monoxide sensors or lower-emitting engines.

Only five generators out of 20 popular models that Consumer Reports tested for a report last summer had safety features able to pass its tests, which required built-in sensors that can detect colorless, odorless carbon monoxide and automatically shut off the machine.

“Carbon monoxide does not present itself in a way that’s noticeable,” says Elliot Kaye of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, who unsuccessfully fought to set a mandatory standard for portable gasoline-powered generators, which the CPSC estimates kill 70 Americans each year. “Most consumers are not aware of how deadly these can be.”

A home in Battle Creek, Michigan, where a young couple died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a portable generator last January.
A home in Battle Creek, Michigan, where a young couple died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a portable generator last January.
Google Streetview

Generators often misused

Of the five generators that passed the Consumer Reports tests, the magazine recommended just three, based on their safety features and other performance factors:

  • The 7,000-watt Ryobi RY907022F.
  • The 8,000-watt DeWalt PMC168000.
  • And the 8,000-watt Generac 7675.

But store shelves and websites are filled with numerous generators that lack carbon monoxide sensors and automatic-shutoff switches and aren’t made to provide reduced emissions, a Chicago Sun-Times spot check found.

That can be fine for use in well-ventilated, outdoor spaces. But when people bring them inside — to basements, garages or even onto porches or outside under windows — experts say the results can be fatal.

The problem can be compounded during a weather emergency, when people are stressed and without power. Not wanting their generator to get wet or stolen, some people will move it inside to a garage or place it close to the house.

In reviews and questions posted online, customers of Amazon.com often describe placing a generator outside near a window or ask whether the machines could be used indoors during a power outage — both which could bring a quick death.

A group of four people are setting up a portable generator after a storm hit the Chicago area in July 2011.

The effects of carbon monoxide depend on the concentration and amount of time people are exposed to it. According to the CPSC, people notice symptoms — headache, fatigue and nausea — starting at concentrations of about 70 parts per million.

And their problems can escalate quickly, with disorientation, unconsciousness and death possible at sustained concentrations above 150 to 200 parts per million.

Even when someone is rescued, survivors could still sustain brain damage, depending on the amount of exposure.

According to its most recent data, the federal government logged more than 900 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators from 2005 to 2017.

Poisonings without warning

Carbon monoxide is a stealth killer that can fell even large groups of people:

  • In Clarksville, Tennessee, in 2011, five adults attending a bikers event for charity were killed when carbon monoxide from a portable generator placed outside their camper apparently seeped in through a small storage hatch. Police measured the carbon monoxide at 438 parts per million.
  • A family of eight was killed in Baltimore in 2015, poisoned by a gasoline-powered generator inside the family’s home. It had been hooked up to heaters after their power was cut off.
  • A wedding reception in Madison, Wisconsin, was evacuated and more than 100 people transported to hospitals in 2016 after a portable generator for the band filled the venue with carbon monoxide.
A firefighter is pulling a dolly with a fan that he will place inside a building in West Dundee after carbon monoxide from a generator sickened nine construction workers and a project manager in 2004.
A firefighter sets up a fan in the doorway of a building in West Dundee after carbon monoxide from a generator sickened nine construction workers and a project manager in 2004.
Sun-Times files

In the Battle Creek, Michigan case last January, authorities found Cylie Canniff, 19, and Brandon Bull, 20, in the kitchen of a home Brandon was helping renovate. A portable generator was inside, by the front door.

Firefighters using a hand-held carbon monoxide detector got readings in the house of 700 parts per million downstairs and 900 upstairs. The couple’s 5-month-old baby survived by a stroke of luck: He was cocooned in a pocket of space between his parents’ pillows, with a drafty window blowing on his face, says Detective Sgt. Todd Elliott of the Battle Creek police.

“I’m a man of faith, and I have to believe that God certainly had a role in saving that baby’s life,” Elliott says.

Though deaths result most often when a generator is run inside an enclosed space, Consumer Reports’ tests found that dangerous gas can build up in an attached garage even if the garage door is open.

The magazine’s testers ran an experiment with the five models that have a CO sensor and automatic shutoff system, placing each generator right at the open garage door but directing the exhaust inward to see whether the sensor would react.

None of the five generators automatically shut off, the tests found, though carbon monoxide quickly built up inside the garage.

“Even if the garage door is open, the carbon monoxide can accumulate, and it can seep into the house,” says Don Huber, director of product safety for Consumer Reports.

2 standards, no real rules

Kaye, who chaired the Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Obama administration, fought to create a mandatory safety standard that all manufacturers would have to follow. But there was industry opposition, stalling the effort. No similar push has come during the Trump administration.

Now, two competing standards have been developed, though each is voluntary.

One standard, from the Portable Generators Manufacturers’ Association and approved by the American National Standards Institute, a private group “committed to enhancing the global competitiveness of U.S. business,” says generators should be able to sense and automatically turn off when carbon monoxide is detected at a level of 800 parts per million. The machines also are supposed to shut off when levels average 400 parts per million over any 10-minute period.

The second, stricter voluntary standard comes from Northbrook’s UL, the former Underwriters Laboratories, which says it uses “exacting scientific processes and the highest ethical principles to help create a better world.” According to this standard, generators are supposed to emit significantly less carbon monoxide and immediately shut off at 400 parts per million or when levels average 150 parts per million over any 10-minute period.

Techtronic Industries, which makes Ryobi and other brands, is the first company that’s adopted both a lower emissions standard and more rigorous shutoff scheme. Other manufacturers are expected ultimately to follow.

Michael Gardner, Techtronic’s vice president of new product development, says the company set its sights on lowering emissions after tracking hundreds of cases in which people reported using generators outdoors, but fumes still got inside.

In some cases, the home’s indoor carbon monoxide alarms went off. In others, people ended up in emergency rooms.

“They had it outside, and they thought it was far enough away,” Gardner says.

The staff of the federal consumer product safety agency is evaluating both voluntary standards.

Skokie attorney Gordon Johnson has represented carbon monoxide victims and testified before the CPSC. He says it’s appalling that lifesaving technology exists but isn’t required.

“They know how to make them safe,” Johnson says of the manufacturers of portable generators. “It’s just that they don’t want to spend the money to do it.”

The manufacturers association, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, last year hailed its voluntary standard as “monumental in reducing carbon monoxide dangers and promoting overall consumer safety.”

Still, the CPSC’s Kaye worries that many consumers, looking mostly at the price tag, will buy the cheapest generators, which might not meet either safety standard.

“I do still think that a mandatory standard is necessary,” Kaye says. “It’s extremely frustrating that the problem has not been solved. But, even more than frustrating, it’s tragic.”

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