If you or someone you know has concerns enough about extreme weather events and the electrical failures that too often accompany them to look into buying a portable generator, be sure to take great care to examine the pricey device’s safety features.
Thousands of consumers have been poisoned or killed by carbon monoxide (CO) fumes from emergency household generators, according to ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative site, which joined the Texas Tribune and NBC News in digging into records on the dangers posed by the combustion engines that can provide power in critical moments.
But just as motorists must take care to avoid running their vehicles in closed environs, and consumers should not run fuel-burning heaters in confined, indoor spaces, so too, users of portable generator must safeguard themselves and those in a wide area around them from their units’ powerful but odorless fumes. The generators, costing from $400 to $2,500, should not be run near or inside homes. As ProPublica and its partners found:
“Portable generators can save lives after major storms by powering medical equipment, heaters, and refrigerators when the grid collapses. But desperate residents who rely on the machines to keep their families safe sometimes end up poisoning them instead. The devices can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars, according to federal figures (see agency illustration, above). They kill an average of 70 people in the U.S. each year and injure thousands more, making them one of the most dangerous consumer products on the market. As climate change and the nation’s aging infrastructure combine to cause worsening storms and longer power outages, experts warn that more people are turning to portable generators every year — a trend that benefits manufacturers’ bottom line while putting more people at risk.”
Manufacturers, the media investigators found, have frustrated federal regulators by relying on interventions by pro-business politicians and awkward bureaucratic rules to stall or block generator safeguards that could prevent poisonings and deaths. For as little as $15 more, for example, makers could change the generators’ engine design, so they produce far less carbon monoxide. Manufacturers also could install universal carbon monoxide detectors to shut down the devices when safe CO levels are exceeded.
Instead, makers have concentrated on information campaigns, arguing that it will be more effective to provide consumers warnings about generators and carbon monoxide, including telling them to use the devices farther from their homes (geez, even offering longer electrical cords so they can do so.)
That has not reduced the poisoning and death toll associated with the product. Makers say that retailers, however, may compel changes with at least one major big box chain telling companies they will not sell generators lacking CO alarms.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on consumers and their loved ones by defective and dangerous products. Taxpayers invest major sums to fund the work of the U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Agency and it is disappointing to read continuing coverage of how it falls short, especially due to the excess politicization of its work, notably by meddling by conservative, pro-business Republicans.
Political partisans may try to paint climate change as untrue or less a worry than it truly is — and the science shows it threatens humanity’s very existence over time. When regular folks respond by shoring up their protective gear, including with power generators, they should not be subject to new, alternative, and serious risks, particularly through carbon monoxide poisoning that leads to deaths.
By the way, if homeowners don’t have them installed already, household carbon monoxide detectors are a recommended safeguard that are relatively inexpensive and easy enough to add with smoke detectors.
We have much work to do to ensure that widely available and needed products neither poison us nor cost us our lives. And a strong and working consumer protection agency should be a big part of the regulatory and oversight system that keeps us from commercial products’ harms.