This week, the U.S. consumer protection agency announced that it will recommend new mandatory rules to make portable generators more safe. It stated that manufacturers have not done enough to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning deaths from their products.
This announcement is part of a 104 page staff report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). It's a crucial step towards regulating gas-powered generators that can produce as much carbon monoxide and kill as many as 450 cars each year in the U.S.
This commission's action comes nearly two decades after U.S. regulators recognized the deadly dangers posed by portable generators. Two months after NBC News, ProPublica, and Texas Tribune investigations revealed that federal efforts to make portable generators safer were thwarted by a statutory process that allows manufacturers to regulate themselves. This has led to continued deaths and limited safety improvements.
When used in enclosed spaces or near exterior openings, portable generators can emit enough carbon monoxide that they can kill within minutes. Generators are responsible for nearly all deaths from carbon monoxide, including the 10 fatalities caused by them in Texas last year during the winter storm and failure of the power grid.
Manufacturers of generators claim that their products can be safely used if users adhere to the safety guidelines. This includes keeping them outside and away from windows and doors. Safety advocates claim that the instructions can be difficult to follow because the machines cannot operate in snow or rain. A review of the user manuals from news organizations revealed that some can contain contradicting messages. Some manuals recommend keeping generators closer to windows or doors than recommended by the CPSC. Others provide general guidance, such as keeping machines "faraway" homes.
It has taken years to create the new push for mandatory rules. After concluding that generator makers could save lives by producing machines that emit less carbon monoxide in 2016, the CPSC announced plans for making the change mandatory.
However, before the CPSC could impose this rule, a federal law that was friendly to the industry required the agency first to allow generator manufacturers to develop their own safety improvements and to examine whether these voluntary measures were sufficient to protect consumers.
Instead, industry representatives suggested a safer safety upgrade that would turn off the devices when carbon monoxide levels rise to unsafe levels. Safety advocates countered that the shut-off switches would prevent 99 per cent of deaths.
The NBC News, ProPublica, and Texas Tribune investigations found that three years after the voluntary standard was unveiled, many manufacturers had yet to adopt the change. These findings were echoed in the CPSC's report this week. The commission discovered that too many manufacturers had made voluntary changes. This allowed it to move forward with the development and implementation of mandatory regulations.
Marietta S. Robinson, who was a CPSC Commissioner from 2013-2018 and supported mandatory generator safety standards, said "Think about how many lives could be saved if the CPSC went forward with a standard in 2016".
The CPSC report found that voluntary changes made by some manufacturers reduced the risk for consumers but not in the way that industry officials promised.
Based on tens to thousands of simulations of common generator carbon Monoxide accidents, CPSC staffers discovered that adding shut-off sensors to prevent generator deaths without reducing carbon monoxide emission would reduce about 87 percent of the deaths. However, some generators may still be left with CO levels dangerous enough to need hospitalization.
CPSC staff also tried a more strict approach to equipping the machines, which included shut-off sensors as well as engines that emit less carbon monoxide. They found that this combination would reduce "nearly 100%" of generator deaths and hospitalizations.
Staff from the agency will press the five commissioners of the CPSC to make the mandatory standard a priority for the next fiscal year which starts in October.
Alex Hoehn–Saric, who was recently appointed as the group's chair, stated in a statement, "The new CPSC staff Report on Portable Generators" shows the need to proceed as fast as law allows with mandatory rulemaking to address this invisible killer."
ProPublica, Tribune, and NBC News analyses of CPSC data revealed that over 300 people died due to carbon monoxide poisoning by generators within the four-year period following the CPSC's rule lowering emissions.
Sheletta Brundidge, a Houstonian who lost five of her family members after leaving a portable generator in an attached garage during Hurricane Laura's destruction of power supply across Louisiana, said that "it's about time." You can't expect these companies will police themselves. You know what? I would gladly pay an additional amount to ensure safety.
The CPSC had previously calculated that reducing generator carbon monoxide emissions would increase the manufacturing cost by approximately $115 for most units. These units typically retail for $500 to $1500.
Joseph Harding (technical director, Portable Generator Manufacturers Association), the trade association that created the voluntary shut off switches standard, stated in an email that they were still reviewing the CPSC report. Harding reiterated industry's belief in shut-off switches being able to eliminate 99 percent deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning and challenged the agency's conclusion about too few companies having adopted this safety measure.
Harding wrote that "Compliance with this standard is already at an high level and is expected to grow substantially in next year." According to industry groups, the data supporting this assertion was not available to news media outlets because it was confidential.
Rachel Weintraub is the general counsel of the advocacy group Consumer Federation of America. She stated that this brings the CPSC closer towards establishing a standard for portable generators.
She said that the lack of widespread compliance provides the CPSC direct evidence that discredits industry claims that voluntary measures are sufficient to protect consumers. Weintraub stated that there are fewer levers they can pull to slow down the process.
Brundidge stated that she hopes that the latest attempt to require safety upgrades will move more quickly.
She said, "It shouldn’t have taken all these people to die or get sick for someone to come along and say, ‘Hey, wait, we need to take action.'" "And so, I'm glad that finally someone is doing something to police the manufacturer, because we've been putting that on the consumers, which is not right.