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Warning: Gas generators can kill

Sen. Bill Nelson says another federal study isn't needed after 12 carbon monoxide deaths in Florida in two storm seasons.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2005

Federal safety regulators knew two years ago that people were dying at an alarming rate from improperly ventilated portable gas generators.

At least part of the cause was inadequate warning labels, which vary with each manufacturer, they found.

But Hal Stratton, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, decided to let the industry police itself.

Since then, at least 12 people have died in Florida during two busy hurricane seasons from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by poorly ventilated generators.

Now Stratton has called for another study.

But Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, says the agency has already studied the risks and wants Stratton to explain why he sought voluntary rather than mandatory standards for portable generators.

The risk is told in the nationwide numbers reported by the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission: 18 dead in 2001, 40 in 2002, 36 in 2003.

But behind the numbers are people like 84-year-old Frank Hovell of Pensacola.

It was the day after Hurricane Dennis hit the Panhandle in July, and even though Hovell's Generac generator had run out of gas a day earlier, the level of carbon monoxide in his Pensacola home was still lethal.

"The warning label on his generator said, "Do not use in an enclosed area,"' recalled his daughter, Linda Martin. "He was a mechanical engineer. Well-educated. What he would define as an enclosed area is a living room with the doors and windows shut. He put it on a sun porch with all the windows open."

When Hovell went into the porch to fill the gas tank, he was overcome.

Now Martin is fighting back. She goes to hardware stores and warns anyone who is buying a gas generator.

"I tell them that if they think it's okay to run those things in their garage or carport," she said, "they're dead wrong.

"You'd be amazed how many people say, "I had no idea."'

Nearly all gas generators have warnings on the shipping containers, and there are more warnings in the operating manuals. Several manufacturers also put small warning stickers on the generators.

But according to the safety commission's 2003 report, "Research suggests that consumers often skip over safety sections."

The commission staff recommended large and directly worded warning labels in the manuals and on the machines.

Stratton instead chose to rely on voluntary standards by generator manufacturers.

In the meantime, deaths and injuries continued to mount.

During Hurricane Dennis alone, health officials documented at least 21 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, nearly all caused by improperly ventilated portable generators.

Besides Hovell, 55-year-old Guy Ford, a construction foreman who rode Harleys and knew his way around machinery, was killed in his Pensacola home from carbon monoxide produced by a generator.

In an Oct. 12 memo, Stratton directed his staff to review the status of portable generator safety "in light of carbon monoxide deaths and injuries."

Nelson wrote a letter in response last week expressing his disappointment.

"Although you issued a memorandum on Oct. 12," Nelson wrote, "it seems the evidence already is in."

Nelson mentioned the 2003 study and another report in mid 2004 in which Stratton's staff concluded that consumers "were presented with inconsistent, vague and incomplete information about generator hazards."

Stratton is the head of an agency that oversees more than 15,000 products ranging from Halloween costumes to air conditioners. He met with staunch opposition from consumer advocates even before he was nominated to head the agency in late 2001.

A former New Mexico attorney general and co-chairman of the Lawyers for Bush in that state, Stratton is also a founder of the Rio Grande Foundation, which promotes limited government, free markets and individual responsibility.

Generator manufacturers insist their products are adequately labeled. And regulators say it's only been in the last few years that the number of carbon monoxide deaths has spiked.

"We've been looking at the hazard since 2001," CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis said Monday. "The chairman's call for a safety review was responding to the recent deaths from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It became apparent the agency needs to look more closely at generator safety."

Especially, Davis said, the use of warning labels.

"There seems to be a lack of understanding among the public, especially among first-time buyers," she said. The agency needs to study whether existing warning labels are adequate.

Martin can answer that question.

"If I buy a one-dollar pack of Christmas lights at Wal-Mart, there will be a big warning on the box that says, "For outdoor use only,"' she said.

"The label on my dad's generator was about an inch square and was mixed in with other labels."

It was also Frank Hovell's first generator.

And the first time he had used it.

--Times staff writer Craig Pittman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 15, 2005, 03:00:33]

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