After the storm, the most dangerous period
Most injuries and deaths occur after a hurricane passes. Portable generators are among the deadliest consumer products because they emit carbon monoxide. ProPublica, NBC News and the Texas Tribune explored why generators pose such a problem, even while serving vital functions after a storm:
The devices can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars, according to federal figures. 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.
The federal government identified the danger of portable generators more than two decades ago. But regulations that would force companies to reduce generators’ carbon monoxide emissions and make the machines safer have been stymied under a statutory process that empowers manufacturers to regulate themselves, former government officials and consumer advocates say. That has resulted in limited safety upgrades and continued deaths, NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.
The generator industry has resisted attempts by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to require the devices to emit less carbon monoxide. Instead, the industry proposed a cheaper, voluntary safety upgrade in 2018, suggesting that manufacturers install carbon monoxide sensors that automatically shut engines off when high levels of the colorless, odorless gas are detected in an enclosed space. Three years later, not all manufacturers have adopted the change, and safety advocates say the shut-off switches fall short of what’s needed to protect consumers.
You can look at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s data (page 43 of this report) and see 1,300 CO deaths over the last two decades that have been linked to portable generators and that, the CPSC says, is likely an undercount.(Consumer Product Safety Commission)
Only 17% of the people who died from CO emitted by generators had operational CO alarms nearby. In some cases the CO alarms didn’t have batteries, in others people didn’t understand what the alarm was warning.
(Consumer Product Safety Commission)
Generator-caused deaths are highest after hurricanes, even higher than winter power outages according to the CPSC research of 2011-2021 data.
The CPSC points us to new research:
In its new report, Fatal Incidents Associated with Non-Fire Carbon Monoxide Poisoning from Engine-Driven Generators and Other Engine-Driven Tools 2011-2021, CPSC estimates that about 85 consumers die in the U.S. each year from CO poisoning caused by gasoline-powered portable generators.* The report also shows that African Americans are at higher risk, accounting for 23 percent of generator-related CO deaths, nearly double their estimated 13 percent share of the U.S. population.
Most generator deaths (81%) occur in residential locations. CPSC’s study also found that the top three reasons for using a generator among the reported fatal incidents were weather-related power outages, power shut-offs, and attempts to provide power to temporary locations, such as cabins, campers and trailers.
Here are two things to keep in mind.
The CPSC says portable generators should only be used outdoors and be at least 20 feet away from home with the exhaust pointed away from windows and doors.