This article was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuse of power, and The Texas Tribune, a local nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom that educates and engages with Texans. . Sign up to receive ProPublica’s Biggest Stories as soon as they are published, and subscribe to The weekly brief to catch up on essential coverage of Texas issues.
The generator industry’s promised solution to deadly carbon monoxide poisoning was put to the test last year on a narrow patio outside Demetrice Johnson’s home after Hurricane Ida hit plunged much of Louisiana into darkness.
Johnson’s brand new generator – fitted with a safety mechanism that the makers say prevents ‘more than 99%’ of carbon monoxide poisoning deaths – buzzed into the night, inches from the back door of his family on September 1, 2021, powering an air conditioner and refrigerator.
If carbon monoxide levels got too high, the generator was designed to automatically sense the hazard and trigger a kill switch.
But by the time rescuers entered the three-bedroom brick home in Jefferson Parish the next morning, Johnson and his children, Craig Curley Jr., 17, and Dasjonay Curley, 23, were dead. According to a report from the sheriff’s office, they had been poisoned by exhaust fumes billowing from the generator in their home, exposing a safety gap that federal officials and consumer advocates had warned about.
The safety switch’s failure to save Johnson and her children is detailed in an April Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) report that was obtained this month by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News via an open records request. The federal report follows an investigation by news organizations that detailed the family’s deaths and found that attempts to make portable generators safer have been thwarted by an oversight process that allows manufacturers to regulate themselves, which which resulted in limited security upgrades.
CPSC investigators could not say if the shutdown sensor on Johnson’s 6,250-watt Briggs & Stratton Storm Responder activated at any time during the night, but when rescuers arrived the next morning , the generator was in the “on” position with an empty fuel tank.
“This tragic incident illustrates one of the limitations” of voluntary safety upgrades that have been championed by generator manufacturers in recent years, one of the agency’s engineers wrote in a letter to industry. accompanied the report.
Briggs & Stratton did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The Portable Generator Manufacturers Association has repeatedly stated that auto shut-off sensors will prevent more than 99% of deaths associated with what they call “misuse”. Joseph Harding, the group’s chief technical officer, said in an email that the association stands by that assertion following the CPSC’s investigation into the Louisiana case. Harding said no safety feature can prevent 100% of deaths.
“Unfortunately, the incident in Louisiana was a perfect storm of misuse in an outdoor location,” he said. “This tragic situation was in the ‘less than 1%’ category.”
The findings add to the scrutiny of an industry under pressure to make its products safer. In February, the CPSC announced plans to propose new mandatory regulations in its 2023 fiscal year to mandate stricter generator safety upgrades. And in June, a congressional committee launched an investigation, which remains open, into whether manufacturers of portable generators have done enough to protect the public from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Portable generators are one of the deadliest consumer products on the market, killing an estimated 80 people in the United States each year and poisoning thousands more. The machines, used to power medical equipment and appliances during blackouts, emit toxic levels of carbon monoxide fumes that can become deadly when they accumulate inside homes.
Carbon monoxide deaths caused by generators predictably follow nearly every major power outage caused by extreme weather, which scientists say is becoming more common with climate change. Generators played a role in at least 10 deaths in Texas during the February 2021 winter storm and power grid outage, according to medical examiner investigations and incident reports. The Louisiana Department of Health reported that at least six people, including Johnson’s family, died of carbon monoxide poisoning after Hurricane Ida.
Federal regulators have known about these dangers for more than two decades, but the CPSC has not implemented mandatory safety standards that would require manufacturers to drastically reduce carbon monoxide emissions. Instead, the agency allowed the industry in 2018 to develop its own cheaper solution: let manufacturers voluntarily fit generators with sensors that are supposed to automatically shut down engines when carbon monoxide builds up to a dangerous level. around them.
Harding, the generator industry representative, stressed that generators should only be used outdoors with the exhaust pointed away from windows and doors. He directed reporters to the industry’s public awareness campaign, which instructs users, “To protect yourself from those carbon monoxide emissions, all you have to do is take it out.”
Photos included in the CPSC investigation show the generator that killed Johnson and his children was placed inches from a back door, with the exhaust pointed toward the house. Because the generator was outside, the carbon monoxide safety sensor was unable to measure the amount of gas flowing through the back door and accumulating inside, a flaw in the mechanism of security that the CPSC and consumer advocates have highlighted.
Marietta Robinson, commissioner of the CPSC from 2013 to 2018, said the Louisiana incident “strongly demonstrates that incorporating a kill switch into a portable generator instead of reducing emissions is simply not a means of protecting consumers from this hidden danger”. She noted that Johnson’s side yard was so small — only a few feet wide, according to the photos — that it would have been impossible to follow the generator manufacturers’ instructions to keep the machine about 20 feet from the house.
As part of the CPSC’s announcement in February of its intention to propose new mandatory regulations, the agency released a report that investigated the effectiveness of the generator industry’s voluntary safety measures. He concluded that too few manufacturers had adopted safety upgrades and that, based on a series of simulations conducted by the agency, carbon monoxide kill switches were not effective in preventing poisonings and deaths in certain scenarios. Notably, the agency found that auto-shutoff sensors fail when users set up the machines outdoors with the exhaust directed at windows or doors — the same scenario that killed Johnson and his children.
Based on its own simulations, the agency found that auto-shutdown sensors could prevent 87% of fatalities caused by generators – less than the 99% figure promoted by the industry – while leaving some consumers exposed. to levels of carbon monoxide toxic enough to require hospitalization.
CPSC staff members also tested a tougher approach of fitting machines with shutdown sensors and motors that emit far less carbon monoxide and found that the combination would eliminate ‘nearly 100%’ of fatalities. generators and the vast majority of hospitalizations.
In comments to the CPSC, industry officials argued that requiring generators to emit less carbon monoxide in addition to kill switches “would only further burden manufacturers, add unnecessary costs and would provide no significant increase in benefits over discontinuation”. approach alone.