Every summer, just before hurricane season starts, the government issues a safety alert about portable generators, warning that their misuse could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning and death. The alert is usually repeated after every major storm.
But these warnings don't appear to be sufficient based on the climbing number of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators. Between 2000 and 2005, there have been at least 216 such deaths, of which 64 occurred last year. That was the highest number ever, but not surprising given last year's horrific storms as well as the growing sales for generators.
Now, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has decided it's time for the agency to be more proactive. It is proposing a new, stronger warning label for portable generators and has launched a study into other ways carbon monoxide deaths can be minimized. Perhaps that study could lead to a federal rule requiring generator manufacturers to develop a product that emits less carbon monoxide in the future. But that option, if it comes, is years away since the CPSC has rarely moved quickly in adopting new federal rules.
Even the proposed new warning label is far from final. It still has to go through an official rulemaking process. That can take several months even if everyone agrees the label is a good thing, which right now seems to be the case.
"The amount of carbon monoxide emitted from a portable generator can be up to several hundred times that released by a modern car's exhaust and can kill consumers in a very short period of time," said CPSC's acting chairman Nancy A. Nord in a statement issued this week, announcing the agency's proposed warning label.
The proposed new label tries to make that threat clearer. It no longer just says "warning," but rather "Danger." And it adds: "Using a generator indoors WILL KILL YOU IN MINUTES."
Commissioner Thomas H. Moore applauds the new label but wonders whether it should be written in other languages. Additionally, he said, "while improvements to warnings are important, warning labels, by themselves, may be insufficient as a sole means of addressing the carbon-monoxide poisoning hazard." Simple awareness of the problem, he said, "will not, in every instance, dissuade a consumer from behavior that leads to exposure to the hazard."
The public has 75 days to comment to the commission about the proposed label; comments should be sent to CPSC's Office of the Secretary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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