Home Use Generators: Dangerous and Behind the Curve
During October 2011, an early-season snowstorm hit Connecticut that left over 860,000 businesses and homes in that state without power. This caused many state residents to resort to using portable generators in their homes.
From the time of the blackout until November 9, the Department of Public Health received 143 reports of carbon monoxide poisoning. This is more than nine times the amount of incidents reported during the past three years. Out of reports received, five individuals died and 41 required a hospitalization. Many of these incidents are a result of using portable generators for home use.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a potentially deadly gas found as a byproduct of internal combustion engines that is odorless, colorless and tasteless. CPSC reports from 1999 to 2011 show that nearly 80 percent of fatalities from CO poisoning are associated with generators. This will continue to be a problem because makers of generators only use warning labels to try and prevent injury and death.
Data collected on CO poisoning from generators shows that warning labels and pictures are not enough to reduce these numbers. The CPSC has been exploring technical solutions to the CO hazard since 2006.
The CPSC first began researching this issue in 2002, but were motivated to take action when Hurricane Katrina and seven other hurricanes hit the United States and other areas of the world. The weather-related devastation caused the CPSC to issue a consumer warning about portable generators and CO hazards five times over a three-month period. It was previously only done once a year.
In 2006, the CPSC made a rule to up the wattage of the warning labels. In January 2007, CPSC passed a Final Rule requiring the warning label to add pictograms and to state: “Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES; ”Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide. This is a poison you cannot see or smell; NEVER use inside a home or garage, EVEN IF doors and windows are open; Only use OUTSIDE and far away from windows, doors, and vents.”
The law did not require the warning label to be printed in Spanish as well because Hispanics only represented a 5.6 percent slice of portable generator purchasers in 2005. However, this does not prohibit manufacturers from printing the label in other languages.
The warning label requirement went into effect in May 2007. The agency has not tried to measure the efficacy of heightened warnings since, but data collected shows that death and injury associated with portable generators correlates with weather disasters.
Many people are still using generators indoors despite warnings, but the CPSC is currently working on a technological approach to make them safer.