On Eve of Hurricane Season, U.S. Mandates Safety Labels on Generators

May 17, 2007

Nine words could save lives this hurricane season: “Using a generator indoors can kill you in minutes.”

That might seem obvious, but it’s not — each year dozens of Americans die because they don’t properly use portable electric generators. Stuck without electricity following a hurricane or other natural disaster, they run the generators inside their homes or just outside an open window. Carbon monoxide fills their homes, killing them.

So the federal government is now requiring that all new portable generators carry such a warning sticker. The new regulation took effect just weeks before the June 1 start of the Atlantic tropical storm season and as Floridians began buying hurricane supplies.

“We want consumers to see the label before they ever start their generators for the first time,” said Patty Davis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.

At least 64 people nationwide died from generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning in 2005, the last year records are available, Davis said. The death toll for 2006 is still being tallied, but it’s estimated that at least 32 fatalities nationwide from October to December were related to portable generators.

Carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless and colorless. Inhaling it causes headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, confusion and a quick death.

“The carbon monoxide produced from a portable generator is comparable to the CO produced from hundreds of cars,” Davis said.

Many victims are found in their beds with an out-of-fuel generator inside their homes. Perhaps they feared thieves would steal it as they slept but didn’t want to turn it off.

For example, Howard Jones, 56, was found dead in his Fort Myers home the morning after Hurricane Charley ravaged southwest and central Florida in August 2004. He had placed his generator inside an attached shed to protect it from looters, but left it running and the fumes seeped into his home, officials said. Generators can cost $400 to $3,000 or more.

“The price of a generator is nothing compared to losing your life,” said Nina Banister, spokeswoman for the State Fire Marshal’s Office in Florida.

Generators should be kept outside, far away from windows and doors, Banister said. She didn’t give a minimum distance, but said to put the generator “as far away as you can without putting neighbors in danger.”

Carbon monoxide detectors installed in the home could also warn residents if the toxic gas reaches harmful levels, Banister said. Some states, such as Illinois, require carbon monoxide detectors in the home, but not Florida.

One reason generators are so deadly is there is no federal standard on how they are manufactured, said George Kerr, a carbon monoxide expert. Federal testing is under way to create exhaust standards, but that should have been done a long time ago, he said.

“It’s a humongous hazard,” Kerr said. “A bunch of people always have to die before we put out railroad crossings or stop signs.”

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