As I read the weather reports about the immense snowstorm approaching Boston and New England, I have developed the sick feeling that one gets watching a movie or news story in which an inevitable tragedy will occur, and the viewer is unable to stop it. The tragedy that I envision is completely avoidable, yet still likely to occur.
I’m not thinking of the deaths from snow-covered trees falling on houses, or from cars sliding on ice-slicked roads. These may occur, but they involve some elements beyond human control. No, my worry is that well-intentioned, even careful, families throughout the region will crank up portable generators after losing power and will succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning without realizing the risks associated with these machines.
Hurricane Sandy provides the tragic model. Here’s a headline from a New Jersey newspaper carrying a story sadly repeated in New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania papers: “Sandy’s Silent Killer: Carbon Monoxide Deaths Spring Up After Storm.” Five citizens died in New Jersey alone. And according to statistics compiled by staff at the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Sandy resulted in at least 17 fatalities from carbon monoxide poisonings attributed to portable generators.
So, how do even careful consumers become victims of portable generators? Alas, they place their generators in their garages, partially-enclosed spaces, or directly next to their house that they think will provide sufficient ventilation to remove the carbon monoxide. Unfortunately, generators emit large amounts of carbon monoxide — much more than idling cars. Many consumers do not realize this and do not understand that simply opening windows or leaving garage doors open will not necessarily protect them.
Unfortunately, carbon monoxide cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. And gauging the amount of carbon minoxide by the amount of exhaust fumes that one can smell is an unreliable guide. Carbon minoxide can kill within minutes.
So, here is my plea to those in the path of the approaching snowstorm:
• Never use a generator indoors or in a garageor room next door. Place them outdoors, away from the house.
• Read the instructions and warnings carefully about where to place your generator.
• Place carbon monoxide detectors on all floors of your house.
• And be alert for the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning – headaches and dizziness.
Any death caused by nature run amok is regrettable. But deaths that are avoidable with proper cautions can only be described as pure tragedy. It is my deepest hope that Boston and beyond can avoid such a fate.
Robert Adler is a commissioner at the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.