Warning stickers to go on generators

Published May 20, 2007

ORLANDO - Nine words could save lives this hurricane season: "Using a generator indoors can kill you in minutes."

That might seem obvious, but it's not - each year dozens of Americans die because they don't properly use portable electric generators. Stuck without electricity following a hurricane or other natural disaster, they run the generators inside their homes or just outside an open window. Carbon monoxide fills their homes, killing them.

So the federal government is now requiring that all new portable generators carry such a warning sticker.

"We want consumers to see the label before they ever start their generators for the first time, " said Patty Davis of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.

At least 64 people nationwide died from generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning in 2005, the last year records are available, Davis said. The death toll for 2006 is still being tallied, but it's estimated that at least 32 fatalities nationwide from October to December were related to portable generators.

Carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless and colorless. Inhaling it causes headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, confusion and a quick death.

"The carbon monoxide produced from a portable generator is comparable to the CO produced from hundreds of cars, " Davis said.

Many victims are found in their beds with an out-of-fuel generator inside their homes. Perhaps they feared thieves would steal it as they slept but didn't want to turn it off.

"The price of a generator is nothing compared to losing your life, " said Nina Banister of the State Fire Marshal's Office in Florida.

Generators should be kept outside, far away from windows and doors, Banister said. She didn't give a minimum distance, but said to put the generator "as far away as you can without putting neighbors in danger."

Carbon monoxide detectors installed in the home also could warn residents if the gas reaches harmful levels, Banister said.

One reason generators are so deadly is there is no federal standard on how they are manufactured, said George Kerr, a carbon monoxide expert. Federal testing is under way to create exhaust standards, but that should have been done a long time ago, he said.

"It's a humongous hazard, " Kerr said. "A bunch of people always have to die before we put out railroad crossings or stop signs."