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The US consumer protection agency announced this week that it intends to recommend new mandatory rules to make portable generators safer, saying manufacturers have not voluntarily done enough to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning deaths caused by their products.
Advertising is part of 104 Personnel Report Pages By the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), it is a key step toward regulating gas-powered generators, which can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars and kill an average of 80 people in the United States each year.
The commission’s move comes more than two decades after US regulators outlined the deadly risks posed by portable generators and two months after an investigation by NBC News, ProPublica and Texas Tribune concluded that federal efforts to make portable generators safer were hampered by a legal process enabling them to that. Manufacturers self-regulate, resulting in limited safety upgrades and continuation of fatalities.
Portable generators, often used to power life-saving medical equipment, air conditioners, ovens and refrigerators after severe storms, emit enough carbon monoxide to kill within minutes when run indoors or too close to outdoor vents. Carbon monoxide deaths caused by generators occur after nearly every major power outage, including 10 deaths in Texas related to generators during last year’s winter storm and power grid outages.
Alternator manufacturers say their products are not dangerous when users follow safety guidelines in instruction manuals, which include keeping machines outside and away from doors and windows. But safety advocates say these instructions aren’t always easy to follow, because machines can’t be operated in rain or snow. A review of user manuals by news organizations found that they can provide conflicting messages. Some brochures suggest keeping a shorter distance from the generators From windows or doors from the minimum 20 feet recommended by the CPSC, while others provide general guidelines such as keeping machines “far away” from homes.
The new batch for mandatory rules has been years in the making. In 2016, after we concluded that generator manufacturers could save lives by making machines that emit less carbon monoxide, the CPSC announced plans to make the modification mandatory.
But before the CPSC could enforce the rule, industry-friendly federal law required the agency to first allow generator manufacturers to put in place their own safety upgrades and consider whether these voluntary measures were sufficient to protect consumers.
Industry representatives instead suggested a cheaper safety upgrade: switches that automatically turn off devices when carbon monoxide builds up to an unsafe level. They said the shutdown switches would prevent 99 percent of deaths, but safety advocates have argued that claim is exaggerated.
Three years after the industry revealed the voluntary standard, many manufacturers still haven’t embraced the change, investigations by NBC News, ProPublica and Texas Tribune found. This week’s CPSC report reiterated those findings. The commission found that very few manufacturers had adopted voluntary changes, paving the way for it to continue the process of developing and implementing mandatory regulations.
“Think about how many lives could have been saved had the CPSC introduced a mandatory standard in 2016,” said Marietta S. Robinson, who served as the CPSC’s commissioner from 2013 to 2018 and supported mandatory generator safety standards.
The CPSC report concluded that voluntary changes implemented by some manufacturers reduced risks to consumers, but not to the extent that industry officials had promised.
Based on tens of thousands of simulations of common generator carbon monoxide accidents, CPSC staff found that the industry’s preferred solution of adding shutdown sensors without reducing carbon monoxide emissions would prevent about 87 percent of generator deaths, while still leaving Some consumers are exposed to carbon dioxide. Levels toxic enough to require hospitalization.
CPSC staff also tested a more rigorous approach to equipping machines with both shutdown sensors and actuators that emit significantly less carbon monoxide, finding that the combination would eliminate “nearly 100 percent” of generator deaths and the vast majority of hospitalizations.
The agency will urge the CPSC’s five commissioned staff, who have the final say, to make the recommended mandatory standard a priority in the next fiscal year, which begins in October.
Alex Hoehn-Saric, the group’s newly appointed president, said in a statement that the CPSC’s new report on portable generators “demonstrates the need to move forward as quickly as law allows with mandatory rules designed to address this invisible killer.”
ProPublica, Tribune, and NBC News analysis of CPSC data showed that more than 300 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators in the four years since the CPSC proposed its emissions-reduction rule.
“It’s about time,” said Chleta Brundig, a Houston native who lost five family members in 2020 when they left a portable generator running inside an attached garage after Hurricane Laura caused a blackout across Louisiana. You cannot expect these companies to monitor themselves. And you know, I’m happy and I’m sure most Americans would pay some extra money to put in place some safety measures.”
The CPSC previously estimated that reducing generator carbon monoxide emissions would add about $115 to the manufacturing cost of most units, which typically sell for between $500 to $1,500.
Joseph Harding, technical director at the Portable Generator Manufacturers Association, the trade group that developed the voluntary shut-off switch standard, said in an email that the group is still in the process of reviewing the CPSC report. Harding reiterated the industry’s belief that shutdown switches alone would eliminate 99 percent of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, and questioned the agency’s conclusion that too few companies had adopted safety measures.
“Compliance with the standard is already at a high level and is expected to grow significantly next year,” Harding wrote. The industry group declined to provide data supporting the dispute to news organizations, saying it was confidential.
This brings the CPSC closer to establishing a mandatory standard for portable generators, said Rachel Weintraub, general counsel for Consumers Union of America.
She said the lack of widespread compliance provides the CPSC with direct evidence that refutes industry claims that voluntary actions are sufficient to protect consumers. “There are fewer levers they can pull to slow down the process,” Weintraub said, referring to the industry.
Brundage said she hopes the latest effort to enforce safety upgrades will move faster.
“Hey, wait a minute, we need to do something,” she said, “and so I’m glad that something was finally done to monitor the manufacturers, because we put it on the consumers.” And that’s not true.”