Better warnings on generatorsA Times Editorial
Published November 22, 2005
How many more people must die before the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission adequately warns the public about gas-powered generators? Federal regulators knew two years ago that dozens of people were dying every year from carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet rather than require manufacturers to more clearly warn consumers of the risks, the agency allowed the industry to police itself. Better warning labels are not the cure-all, but they would be a start.
The commission has one job - to protect consumers against dangerous products in the marketplace. While nearly all generators have warnings included on their container, inside the operating manual or on the machine itself, the language can be vague and incomplete. The purpose of these warnings, at least from the government's view, should not be to satisfy the industry's lawyers, but to give consumers enough information to operate the equipment responsibly. Among the details to include: Where to operate the machine to ventilate gas emissions, how to limit the buildup of carbon monoxide and symptoms of poisoning.
The risks have taken on added significance in Florida, where at least 12 people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in busy, back-to-back hurricane seasons. People desperate for power, especially those whose families face dire medical needs, would benefit from seeing a well-placed, clearly written warning label. Anyone who thinks such a label would dampen sales does not grasp how these hurricanes have made Floridians scramble to prepare for power outages.
Commission chairman Hal Stratton, who put aside the staff recommendation for clear warnings and opted for voluntary standards instead, is wasting time by having his agency conduct a "thorough review" of safety issues. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was right to call Stratton on the delay. If the commission wanted to live up to its name, it would require better warning labels now and set a deadline for the industry to come up with these larger safety improvements - from a valve that shuts down a generator when gas emissions reach unsafe levels to more aggressive public-information campaigns.
People who turn to these machines often already have plenty of distractions on their minds. It's not too much to require the industry that sells these machines to clearly explain the risks.