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Generators to carry a warning

After a record number of carbon monoxide deaths, federal regulators require a label for gas-powered portable generators.

Published May 24, 2006

Portable generators can be a lifesaver in the aftermath of a hurricane.

They can also kill you if used improperly.

Federal consumer safety regulators announced on Wednesday a sobering label for virtually all new portable generators:

“Using a generator indoors WILL KILL YOU IN MINUTES.”

The safety measure, effective immediately, comes after 55 people died nationwide last year from carbon monoxide poisoning produced by portable generators, a record. That’s up from 18 in 2001, 40 in 2002 and 36 in 2003, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Twenty-eight of the deaths in 2005 were related to Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma, including at least five in Florida. The numbers could increase once all the data from 2005 are analyzed.

Almost all the deaths were easily avoidable, experts say. Operating generators outdoors, away from living areas and garages, eliminates nearly all the risk of dying from carbon monoxide poisoning.

“It seems like such a no-brainer: You put a label on something and save a life,’’ said Linda Martin of Pensacola, whose 84-year-old father, Frank Hovell, died last year after he placed a generator on a sun porch with all the windows open.

The generator ran out of gas the day before. Still, the level of carbon monoxide remained high enough to kill the retired mechanical engineer when he opened the door onto the sun porch to fill the tank.

Martin called her father a smart, capable man who made a fatal, but preventable, error in judgment. She said the new labels are the “legacy of all the victims of carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.”

“It’s too late for those of us who lost someone,’’ Martin said. “But it’s not too late to make sure so many other people are aware of the danger.”

A gas-powered generator can produce about the same amount of carbon monoxide as 100 idling cars, according to the CPSC, which oversees more than 15,000 products ranging from Halloween costumes to air conditioners.

Running fans or opening windows and garage doors won’t alleviate the danger. It’s a message that many generator buyers, especially first-time users, aren’t aware of or aren’t heeding.

Nearly all gas generators already included warnings on the shipping containers and 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. At the time, CPSC

Chairman Hal Stratton decided on voluntary rather than mandatory labeling.

The decision angered Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who championed a mandatory label. Nelson wrote two letters to Stratton and made a speech in the Senate. He criticized Stratton for putting business interests ahead of public safety.

On Wednesday, Nelson said he was happy the labels were coming out in time for the June 1 start of hurricane season. Generators sales have increased in recent years because of a string of hurricanes that hit the Unites States, particularly Florida.

Portable generators are among myriad hurricane supplies that can be purchased tax-free in Florida until June 1.

Nelson wants the Consumer Product Safety Commission to also require manufacturers to include emergency switches that automatically shut off generators when carbon monoxide reaches dangerous levels. The commission has not made a decision on his proposal.

“When it comes to public safety, that’s the role of government,’’ Nelson said.

The new labels will appear on all gas-powered portable generators certified by Underwriters Laboratories, which nearly every manufacturer goes to for an endorsement. The labels already are on some generators for sale in stores today because UL told manufacturers in April to begin using them.

Home Depot and Wal-Mart have indicated that they will include displays highlighting the new warning labels.

“This is all about educating people,’’ Martin said. “Maybe it’s common sense, but why risk it when the consequences can be fatal.”

Graham Brink can be reached at (727) 893-8406 or

Generator safety
-Generators should never be placed inside a home, garage, carport, porch or any enclosed space. They should be kept away from windows, doors, ducts and vents.

-Opening windows and doors and operating fans are not sufficient.

-Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas. Symptoms of poisoning include dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea or vomiting, and loss of consciousness.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[Last modified May 24, 2006, 22:27:28]

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