Carbon Monoxide From Generators Poisons Thousands of People a Year. The U.S. Has Failed to Force Safety Changes.
by Perla Trevizo, Lexi Churchill and Ren Larson, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune; Mike Hixenbaugh and Suzy Khimm, NBC News
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Three days after Hurricane Ida slammed ashore on Aug. 29, leveling homes and knocking out power along the Louisiana coast, Craig Curley Sr. maneuvered through a packed crowd at Home Depot to reach the aisle with portable generators.
Curley, 50, snagged one of the last units in stock, a 6,250-watt Briggs & Stratton, and drove it to the home of his ex-wife, Demetrice Johnson, in Jefferson Parish.
He tried one last time to convince Johnson, 54, to take their children to stay with relatives in Houston as officials warned it might take weeks to restore power across the region. But she was adamant: With a generator to power her appliances, she felt safe staying.
That evening, Curley helped set up the machine in Johnson’s tiny backyard. He fired up the engine and hung around long enough to make sure the air conditioner was blowing cold. He showed his teenage son how to restart it, then headed home.
“If I’d known what I know now,” Curley said, “I never would have bought that damn thing.”
By the next morning, his ex-wife and their children, 17-year-old Craig Curley Jr. and 23-year-old Dasjonay Curley, were dead, poisoned by carbon monoxide that, according to fire officials, probably flowed from the generator’s exhaust and into the home through the back door.
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. 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.
At least six people died of carbon monoxide poisoning after Hurricane Ida. All of the deaths, including those of Curley’s family, were connected to generators, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. The machines also killed at least 10 people in February after a massive winter storm knocked out power across Texas, causing more than half of the known carbon monoxide deaths linked to the outage, according to medical examiner investigations and incident reports. And warnings about the threat posed by generators resurfaced this week after tornadoes left hundreds of thousands without power in Kentucky and neighboring states.
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, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News 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.
“The process has been rigged and delayed and dragged out at the mercy of profits,” said Elliot Kaye, a former chair of the CPSC who led a thwarted effort to require safer generators. “And the cost of that has been lost lives.”
The continued danger posed by portable generators is part of a broader failure at every level of government to protect residents from carbon monoxide, a yearlong investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News has found. Carbon monoxide deaths predictably follow every major storm and power outage, even though they are preventable, experts say. A patchwork of lax policies and safety gaps leaves residents vulnerable to the invisible danger. Many states and localities do not require carbon monoxide detectors in every residence, and emergency departments are at times ill-equipped to respond to these poisonings, the news organizations found.
The repeated inaction by Texas lawmakers on legislation that would have required CO detectors in homes contributed, in February, to what experts called the worst carbon monoxide poisoning disaster in recent U.S. history. More than 1,400 people were treated in hospitals and at least 17 died across the state after being poisoned by the gas.
Although malfunctioning furnaces and other gas-powered appliances can also lead to carbon monoxide poisonings, no consumer product studied by the CPSC has caused more CO deaths than portable generators. The agency has tracked about 1,300 deaths from generators over the past two decades, with recent studies finding that the largest share of these fatalities happen during weather-related power outages. The CPSC has said the number of deaths is an undercount, as there is no comprehensive legal requirement to report fatalities and injuries to the agency.
Alex Hoehn-Saric, the newly appointed chair of the CPSC, said that protecting generator users from carbon monoxide is a priority at the agency. In an interview, he said he can’t comment on what happened before he arrived in October, but that he’s disappointed the process has taken so long.
“I can only say that now that I’m here, we’re going to prioritize this and make sure that we’re getting to the next stage fast,” Hoehn-Saric said, noting that the agency is studying the effectiveness of the voluntary steps the industry has taken.
Generator industry officials dispute the notion that their products are dangerous, particularly when people follow safety guidelines. The machines should only be operated outdoors, at least 20 feet away from homes, with the exhaust pointed away from windows and doors, according to the CPSC.
Edward Krenik, a lobbyist who represents the Portable Generator Manufacturers’ Association, a trade group, said that even when users fail to follow those guidelines, the voluntary measures that the industry has taken to improve safety in recent years will eliminate the risk of death in most cases as those upgraded products hit the market.
He estimated that about 60% of new portable generators are equipped with sensors that shut them off when carbon monoxide reaches dangerous levels. The industry has also funded awareness campaigns to educate the public about how to safely operate the machines, which typically cost $500 to $1,500.
“The industry should be praised for what they’ve done,” Krenik said, adding that the industry’s efforts will allow government officials to “spend their time and effort and money on other, more serious issues.”
Dr. Fred Henretig, a senior toxicologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has treated numerous patients over the years after they were poisoned in generator accidents following natural disasters. He doesn’t believe the voluntary changes made by some manufacturers are enough to prevent future deaths.
“Few of them did the one thing that we think is really the critical step, which is to change the design of the generators so that they emit much less carbon monoxide,” Henretig said of generator makers. “So they keep pumping out lots and lots of carbon monoxide, and it keeps happening.”
“The Only Thing Missing Was the Will”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, created by Congress in 1972, is charged with ensuring the safety of nearly every product Americans use, from coffee makers to fireworks. With an annual budget of $135 million and about 540 federal employees, the agency is tiny compared with many of the multibillion-dollar industries it oversees.
It’s also hamstrung by restrictions imposed on it 40 years ago under the Reagan administration. The CPSC narrowly survived a bid by anti-regulation Republicans in 1981 to abolish the agency. In a bipartisan compromise, Congress instead amended the Consumer Product Safety Act to require the agency to consider voluntary safety standards — often proposed by the industries the agency regulates — before imposing federal rules.
The consequences of that policy choice can be seen in the decades-long fight to make portable generators safer. During his years as the chair of the CPSC under the Obama administration, Kaye said portable generators routinely popped up in daily product fatality reports produced by the agency.
“I found it sickening,” Kaye said. “It’s a deadly hazard that sneaks up on people and catches them in very vulnerable moments when they are under a lot of stress and the need for electricity is urgent.”
The CPSC spent years studying ways to curb portable generator deaths, beginning in 2002 when the agency reached out to a private company to see if it could develop safer generators that emit less carbon monoxide. But over the next 15 years, the agency never went further than requiring manufacturers to add labels warning that using a generator indoors “CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES” — a move that did not result in fewer deaths.
In 2012, the CPSC scored a breakthrough, when engineers the agency had contracted at the University of Alabama retrofitted a portable generator with upgraded technology — including a more efficient electronic fuel-injection system — to make a prototype that emitted 90% less carbon monoxide. Industry leaders scoffed, arguing that the upgrades were too expensive and that the prototype wasn’t reliable.
But then, in 2016, one manufacturer proved that upgraded machines were not out of reach. Techtronic Industries, which makes generators for the Ryobi brand, unveiled a new model that incorporated the University of Alabama’s CO-reduction system.
Later that year, a month before the presidential election, under Kaye’s leadership, the five members who oversee the CPSC voted 4-1 to propose a mandatory safety standard requiring generator manufacturers to follow Techtronic’s lead and significantly reduce CO emissions. The agency estimated that the change would add about $115 to manufacturing costs for most units and reduce the number of injuries and deaths by a third.
“There is a design solution,” said Kaye, who has since left the agency and now serves as a senior vice president at a nonprofit group that provides meals in the wake of natural disasters. “The only thing missing was the will.”
But as soon as the CPSC issued a formal notice, an important but not final step toward mandatory safety regulations, generator industry leaders notified the agency that they were working on their own voluntary standards to reduce the risk of CO deaths. Under federal requirements, the commission could not implement its mandatory safety standard until it first studied the effectiveness of the industry’s voluntary proposal — a yearslong process.
And after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, the industry gained a well-placed ally. Trump nominated Ann Marie Buerkle, the only CPSC commissioner who voted against the mandatory generator safety standard, to replace Kaye as chair of the commission.
In one of her first actions, ProPublica reported then, Buerkle sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency saying the CPSC did not have the legal authority to make a rule about carbon monoxide emissions and appointed a former industry official to be her general counsel. Buerkle adopted the industry’s perspective, arguing that voluntary standards were “a better way to go.”
“They are quick to complete,” Buerkle told ProPublica in 2017. “There’s much more efficiency in implementation. And there’s much more buy-in from stakeholders.”
Reached by email, Buerkle did not comment.
In the end, under her leadership, the CPSC put the mandatory rule on hold. Two sets of voluntary safety standards were introduced to the portable generator market in 2018. One was drafted by the Portable Generator Manufacturers’ Association, which has spent more than $1 million lobbying the government since 2016, according to federal filings. Under its standard, which is favored by most major generator makers, manufacturers can opt to equip the machines with CO shut-off switches — a less costly fix than overhauling engines to reduce emissions.
Another, more stringent set of voluntary standards developed by UL, a private product certification company, includes shut-off switches and low-emission engines. Safety advocates say that’s the best approach to prevent deaths, but to date, the only companies to adopt the stricter standard in some models are Echo and Ryobi. Those generators, consumer advocates note, are priced similarly to many brands that haven’t switched to low-CO engines.
The CPSC has spent the past three years studying whether the voluntary measures are enough to protect generator users. It has set September 2023 as the deadline to release its final analysis.
Curley wasn’t thinking about the risk of carbon monoxide when he went to Home Depot in search of a portable generator after Hurricane Ida. The brand he picked, Briggs & Stratton, is one of the world’s largest generator makers and one of the companies that agreed to equip some of its generators with a CO shut-off switch beginning in 2018.
But three years later, some Briggs & Stratton models for sale still don’t have the technology. The company didn’t respond to emails requesting comment.
Curley has no idea whether the generator he bought had a CO shut-off switch or whether it would have made a difference.
“My thing is, if I go to the store and buy a generator, it should be safe,” Curley said. “I shouldn’t have to be wondering whether or not it might kill me.”
With no uniform standards for the machines, upgrades can come at a premium, sometimes leaving consumers to choose between price and safety. For example, Generac, a leading generator maker, offers multiple versions of its 8,500-watt series. Consumers can buy one with no safety upgrades for $1,069, or pay $110 more for one that comes with a CO shut-off switch and a 25-foot extension cord to make it easier for users to operate the machine a safe distance from their homes. And the most affordable generator models for sale at some major retailers do not come with safety upgrades, placing shoppers on a tight budget at higher risk.
Generator makers that have equipped their products with CO shut-off switches have repeatedly made a bold pronouncement about the effectiveness of the technology. The switches, they say, can prevent 99% of carbon monoxide deaths caused by generators.
But safety advocates and independent product testers dispute that.
The nonprofit Consumer Reports ran tests on five generators with automatic shut-off sensors and found that, although the switches work as designed when users mistakenly bring generators inside their homes, there were also “potentially life-threatening gaps.” Most notably, the group found that sensors can’t detect high levels of CO building up inside a home when a generator is placed outside the living space but too close to doors or windows — a common mistake made by users after disasters.
Safety advocates say it’s not always easy or even possible for consumers to follow safe generator operating instructions. In some neighborhoods, like the one where Curley’s ex-wife lived, backyards aren’t big enough to place the machines a safe distance from houses. And most generator models aren’t designed to run in rain or snow, leading some users to bring them inside attached garages or onto covered patios.
Adding to the challenge, user manuals often provide vague or inconsistent safety guidelines. Some manufacturers direct users to keep generators at least 5 feet from windows or doors, far closer than the 20-foot minimum recommended by the CPSC. Other generator manuals simply say to keep the machines “far away” from homes, leaving it to users to decide how close is too close.
That’s why Consumer Reports and other safety advocates argue that a mandatory standard requiring manufacturers to equip generators with shut-off switches and lower emissions is the best way to further reduce the risk.
“We need to do both,” said William Wallace, manager of safety policy at Consumer Reports. “And we need a mandatory standard to make sure that the CPSC, our government watchdog agency, is empowered to take action and hold companies accountable when they aren’t doing what’s required of them.”
Generator industry representatives contend that they’ve already solved the safety problem that the CPSC was charged with fixing. They say “voluntary standards are not actually voluntary” because some major retailers, including Home Depot, have started adopting them, pressuring manufacturers to fall in line.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Home Depot confirmed that beginning in January, its stores would only order new portable generators that come with CO shut-off switches, though the retailer will continue to sell off existing inventory without the technology.
“It’s the industry that has the true expertise, not the government,” said Joseph Harding, technical director at the Portable Generators Manufacturers’ Association, the trade group that developed the voluntary shut-off switches standard.
Harding said the group conducted “an incredible amount of real-world testing” before determining that automatic shut-off switches — rather than reduced CO emissions — were the best way to protect consumers. He repeated the argument that the technology would “prevent 99% of all fatalities going forward,” but he did not provide the data the industry relied on to draw that conclusion.
In the four years after the safety commission proposed but did not implement mandatory safety standards, more than 300 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by generators, according to an analysis of CPSC data, though there’s no telling how many of these accidents might have been prevented by stricter federal standards. That’s in part because the industry estimates there are 10 million to 15 million portable generators already in circulation in the U.S., many of which were purchased before the voluntary changes.
Rush’s bipartisan bill would require the commission to establish an interim generator safety standard within six months that would force manufacturers to both lower CO emissions and equip the devices with shut-off switches, while Cassidy’s bill allows for either approach.
A spokesperson for Rush’s office released a statement saying the bill, which failed to advance when he first introduced it in 2020, was an attempt to circumvent CPSC’s “slow and cumbersome” process that was approved by Congress decades prior. She said the congressman supports “reforming and strengthening” the agency to give it more power to protect consumers.
“Deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators are far too common and particularly tragic given that they could be prevented with proper federal regulation,” Rush said in a statement. “The fact that there is currently no federal safety standard for generators is totally unacceptable.”
Bigger Storms, Bigger Danger, Bigger Profits
In February, five years after the CPSC tried and failed to impose mandatory generator safety standards, a massive winter storm swept across Texas and overwhelmed the state’s power grid, sending residents scrambling to find a way to heat their homes.
Sheletta Brundidge, a comedian and media personality from Texas now living near Minneapolis, said she knew what that meant: “People were going to bring generators into their garages or into their houses, and they were going to poison themselves.”
She had seen it happen before.
About six months earlier, in August 2020, Hurricane Laura — another powerful storm — knocked out electricity across Louisiana. Five of her relatives living in Lake Charles were killed by carbon monoxide after they left a generator running in their attached garage. They didn’t have CO alarms in their house.
“What are you talking about, ‘carbon monoxide poisoning’?” Brundidge remembers asking her mother, who called the next day with the news. “I didn’t know that a generator could kill you, wipe out a whole family overnight.”
As she watched similar scenes unfolding in Texas, Brundidge felt desperate to share what she’d learned. She contacted local news outlets in Houston and used her family’s story to warn about the dangers of generators and carbon monoxide. Later that week, Brundidge collected 500 carbon monoxide alarms donated by residents in Minnesota and shipped them to Texas.
“I felt like if I could just get the word out and tell people about the danger, that it could save lives,” Brundidge said.
Despite the warnings — from Brundidge and public health officials across the state — scores of residents were poisoned. Among the 10 people killed by portable generators, three were found in a Nacogdoches home after exhaust from a generator left running on their porch burned a hole in the wall and filled the residence with carbon monoxide. In Houston, a father and daughter died in their sleep after borrowing a portable generator and running it inside their attached garage for only 30 minutes, according to police reports and 911 calls.
And in North Texas, a woman dialed 911 after returning home to find her father-in-law slumped on his recliner, barely breathing, and her 58-year-old husband unconscious on the floor.
“Please hurry, I have two men who are passed out,” she told the EMS dispatcher, according to a recording of the 911 call. “He’s not breathing.”
“You think possibly carbon monoxide?” the operator asked.
“I think so,” the woman wailed in response, telling her husband, “Don’t you do this to me.”
Soon after paramedics arrived, her husband was declared dead, poisoned by a generator he’d purchased that morning and set up on an enclosed patio, running the extension cord through a sliding door that was left cracked open. Her father-in-law was taken to a hospital. A Wichita Falls police report doesn’t indicate the make and model of the machine or whether it was equipped with a CO sensor or a low-emissions engine.
The woman, reached by phone, declined an interview request.
More extreme storms and longer outages like the Texas freeze have safety advocates forecasting more deadly CO accidents — and the generator industry forecasting bigger profits.
Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows extreme weather events — those causing at least $1 billion in damages — have increased from three in 1980 to an all-time high of 22 last year. And as of early October, 2021 was on pace to set a record, according to the most recent data, with 18 disasters, including 11 affecting Texas.
In a November report to investors, Generac Power Systems listed shifting attitudes toward global warming and climate change as among the “key mega-trends” it follows, and it specifically highlighted outages related to wildfires in California and the winter storm in Texas as drivers of increased generator sales. In 2018, Aaron Jagdfeld, Generac’s CEO, told analysts during several earnings calls that a major power outage can boost the company’s sales by $50 million.
Tami Kou, a company spokesperson, said Generac’s products help people “protect their families and their homes” during disasters. She defended the industry’s efforts to protect consumers from carbon monoxide poisoning by voluntarily adding CO shut-off sensors on many devices. In comments to the CPSC, company officials have said requiring generators to emit less CO as well as have shut-off switches “would only further exacerbate the burden on manufacturers, add unnecessary cost, and not provide any significant increase in benefit over the shutoff approach alone.”
By 2023, Kou said, 100% of portable generators sold by Generac will be equipped with shut-off sensors, adding that “the most effective method for reducing unintentional CO poisonings is for consumers to properly operate the portable generator according to the manufacturer’s instructions.”
Brundidge believes there’s an even more effective way to save lives.
“We could just cut it off at the head, you know, and do something so that the product is safer for the consumer,” Brundidge said of generator makers. “But they’ve got to care more about people than the money that they generate.”
A New Generator, Fresh From the Box
The morning after he bought his ex-wife a generator, Curley stopped by to check on her and their children. Earlier that morning, around 2 a.m., his teenage son had texted him to ask how to restart the engine.
Now he wasn’t answering the phone.
Curley knocked on the door, but when nobody answered, he went back to his car. They must have run to the store, he thought. As he started to drive away, Curley said, a public service announcement came over the radio. The voice said something about “carbon monoxide” and “generators.”
“That’s when it hit me,” Curley said.
He dialed 911 and sped back to the house, then ran to the front door. Curley said in an interview that he’d set up the generator about 10 feet from the house the night before — as far away as possible in Johnson’s small yard — but when emergency responders arrived, the device was only inches from the house with the exhaust pipe pointed toward the back door, according to a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office incident report.
When firefighters arrived, the carbon monoxide alarms they carry as part of their uniforms started sounding even before they got inside the house. At the generator on the back patio, they measured CO levels at 200 parts per million, an unsafe level but not high enough to trigger an automatic shut-off switch if the device had one.
Inside the home, CO levels were more than three times as high, according to the police report — enough to make someone lose consciousness within an hour of exposure. By the time paramedics reached Curley’s ex-wife and children, their bodies were already cold.
Days later, when Curley returned to the home to go through his family’s possessions, the newly opened generator box was still in the house. He stared at the packaging for a moment. Then he carried it out to the trash.