After Hurricane Katrina left much of the Gulf Coast in the dark last year, a dozen deaths and scores of carbon monoxide (CO) poisonings were blamed on portable gas-fired generators in the hands of those unfamiliar with their proper use.
Just days ago, in the Buffalo, NY area, after an early snowstorm turned out the lights for hundreds of thousands of residents, half the six storm-related deaths were attributed to CO poisoning during the use of portable generators. Area hospitals reported dozens of cases of CO poisonings caused by the appliances.
At least 222 Americans died from generator-linked carbon-monoxide poisoning from 2000 through 2005, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and 64 of those deaths occurred last year alone. Many of them happened during power outages in the wake of hurricanes and other weather emergencies when people typically use a generator.
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports says generator sales have risen roughly 20 percent in each of the past two years with the portable generator variety accounting for 92 percent of that total.
More and more often people are using portable generators for the first time under stressful, emergency conditions and that can cause them to use the otherwise helpful appliances in an unsafe manner.
Given harsh, sudden and changing weather patterns that create a run on the potentially deadly appliance, the commission is seeking a rule to require manufacturers to label their products with stern warnings that include the statement "Using generators indoors will KILL YOU IN MINUTES".
Gas-fired portable generators exhaust killer levels of odorless, invisible carbon monoxide and should never be used indoors, in enclosed spaces or even outside near open windows, doors or vents.
The proposed red and black label, emblazoned with international symbol-like pictograms showing where not to use generators, also includes the statements: "Exhaust contains carbon monoxide, a poison gas you cannot see or smell. NEVER use in the home or in partly enclosed areas such as garages. ONLY use outdoors and far from open windows, doors and vents."
The commission says that current warning labels -- largely text-based "CAUTION" warnings -- are ambiguous and don't adequately advise users how to avoid CO poisoning.
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, supports the proposed mandatory label, but because some buyers obviously, unfortunately, simply don't read or heed warnings, it would like to see mandatory CO sensors that shutoff the system in the presence of excess carbon monoxide.
The sensors could be included in additional safety regulations under discussion this week.
"We will be looking at the machine itself and what can be done to make it safer, cutting emissions, automatic shut offs, noise reduction, weatherization. It's also an electrocution hazard when it's used outside in the rain. There's also the theft concern, which is why some people bring them inside," said Patty Davis, CPSC spokeswoman.
The public has until Nov. 7 to comment to the commission about the proposed label. Comments can be submitted to CPSC’s Office of the Secretary at .
Learn how to safely use portable generators.