The U.S. agency responsible for protecting consumers announced this week that it intends to recommend new mandatory rules to make portable generators safer, saying manufacturers have not voluntarily done enough to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning deaths caused by their products.
The announcement, part of a 104-page staff report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is a key step toward regulating gas-powered generators, which can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars and which kill an average of 80 people in the U.S. each year.
The commission’s move comes more than two decades after U.S. regulators identified the deadly risks posed by portable generators and two months after an NBC News, ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation found that federal efforts to make portable generators safer have been stymied by a statutory process that empowers manufacturers to regulate themselves, resulting in limited safety upgrades and continued deaths.
Three days after Hurricane Ida slammed ashore on Aug. 29, leveling homes and knocking out power along the Louisiana coast, Craig Curley Sr. maneuvered through a packed crowd at Home Depot to reach the aisle with portable generators.
Curley, 50, snagged one of the last units in stock, a 6,250-watt Briggs & Stratton, and drove it to the home of his ex-wife, Demetrice Johnson, in Jefferson Parish.
He tried one last time to convince Johnson, 54, to take their children to stay with relatives in Houston as officials warned it might take weeks to restore power across the region. But she was adamant: With a generator to power her appliances, she felt safe staying.
That evening, Curley helped set up the machine in Johnson’s tiny backyard. He fired up the engine and hung around long enough to make sure the air conditioner was blowing cold. He showed his teenage son how to restart it, then headed home.
“If I’d known what I know now,” Curley said, “I never would have bought that damn thing.”
By the next morning, his ex-wife and their children, 17-year-old Craig Curley Jr. and 23-year-old Dasjonay Curley, were dead, poisoned by carbon monoxide that, according to fire officials, probably flowed from the generator’s exhaust and into the home through the back door.
Portable generators can save lives after major storms by powering medical equipment, heaters and refrigerators when the grid collapses. But desperate residents who rely on the machines to keep their families safe sometimes end up poisoning them instead.
The devices can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars, according to federal figures. They kill an average of 70 people in the U.S. each year and injure thousands more, making them one of the most dangerous consumer products on the market.
AUSTIN — More than five hours into a legislative debate on voting restrictions and border security last week, a Texas lawmaker made a last-ditch attempt to strengthen the state’s power grid and, in the process, prevent carbon monoxide deaths.
On Aug. 27, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat from Driftwood, just outside of Austin, offered an amendment that would redirect $250 million from a $1.8 billion border security bill to improve the reliability of the power grid. The measure, she told her colleagues, could keep “our citizens from dying during a winter storm from carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Zwiener’s amendment came months after an April investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News found that a weeklong February storm that left millions of residents without power had also resulted in the largest carbon monoxide poisoning event in recent U.S. history. At least 17 people were killed by the gas and more than 1,400 were hospitalized.
The investigation revealed weak links at every level of government, including that the state failed to regulate the power grid and lawmakers repeatedly declined to act on legislation that would have required carbon monoxide alarms in residences.
“There were a lot of people taking risks to try and stay warm enough. We’re honestly lucky we lost as few people as we did to carbon monoxide poisoning,” Zwiener said in a recent interview, adding that she had the news organizations’ latest installment of the investigation in mind when she proposed the amendment.
The amendment failed. The author of the border bill, state Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Republican from Friendswood, said he opposed taking funding away from border security.
In the six months since the storm, lawmakers have not taken any sweeping action to protect most Texas residents from carbon monoxide poisonings at home.
HOUSTON — It was 9:08 p.m. when Michael Negussie’s phone rang. Twenty minutes had passed since he called 911 asking for emergency crews to check on his cousins and their two children, fearing that they had fainted from carbon monoxide poisoning in their Houston home during a massive winter storm.
A fire captain at the dispatch center told Negussie that an emergency crew had arrived at the two-story town house. But, he said, no one was answering the door.
“It’s one of those things, if they get there and they have to force entry, they’re going to break the door, displace the lock,” the captain said, according to a recording of the 911 call.
Negussie was baffled. Why would emergency responders expect someone to come to the door if the reason for the call was that the family was unconscious?
“Yeah, that’s fine. Do that as soon as possible,” Negussie, 21, responded, trying to convey the urgency. “We think that they might have inhaled carbon monoxide in the garage.”
At any other time, Negussie would have driven the 24 miles from his home in Pearland, Texas, to his cousins’ southwest Houston neighborhood. But local government officials had urged Texans not to travel the ice-coated roads on this frigid Feb. 15 evening, concerned that they would endanger themselves and first responders.
So Negussie and his parents put their faith in the emergency responders who had arrived at their cousins’ home. As the fire crew waited for more information about why the family was not answering the door, the captain at the dispatch center asked Negussie what made him believe his relatives had inhaled carbon monoxide.
The power was out, Negussie explained. Their car, he had learned from someone who had spoken with the family earlier in the day, was running in the attached garage so they could charge their phones.
“All right, well, we have units out there. I’ll let them know. I’ll make a tactical decision on that incident, and I’ll get HPD out there,” the captain said, referring to the Houston Police Department, which often assists when emergency responders must force entry into a home.
“And you’ll keep us updated?” Negussie started to ask. The fire captain hung up before he could finish.
HOUSTON — When Shalemu Bekele awoke on the morning of Feb. 15, the town house he shared with his wife and two children was so cold, his fingers felt numb.
After bundling up in extra layers, Bekele looked out a frosted window: A winter storm had swept across Texas, knocking out power to millions of homes, including his own, and blanketing Houston in a thin layer of icy snow.
“It was beautiful,” Bekele, 51, recalled thinking as he headed outside to snap photos of his two children, ages 7 and 8, playing in their first snow. After a few minutes, he sent them back inside to warm up under blankets as he cleared ice off his car, unsure if he would be expected to drive into work.
Bekele’s wife, Etenesh Mersha, 46, meanwhile, made a fateful decision, one repeated by scores of Texas residents who lost electricity that week. Desperate to warm up, she went into their attached garage and turned the key to start her car. As the engine hummed, it provided power to run the car’s heater and charge her phone while she talked to a friend in Colorado — at the same time, filling her garage and home with a poisonous gas.
There was no carbon monoxide alarm in place to warn the family of the invisible danger. None was required under local or state law.