Generators Keep the Lights On—but the Cost Can Be Deadly

Yearlong investigation looks at difficultly in getting industry to make them safer
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 19, 2021 10:45 AM CST
Portable Generators Can Feel Like a Savior—but Also Kill
Stock photo of a generator in winter.   (Getty Images)

They're "one of the most dangerous consumer products on the market," but they're often seen as a saving grace: portable generators, which can keep the electricity streaming during power outages but also emit carbon monoxide. If the machine isn't positioned properly—put too close to the home, or used indoors or in a garage—the gas it emits can concentrate to levels that can kill. A yearlong investigation by ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, and NBC News looks at the rising use of generators in the face of "worsening storms and longer power outages" and the uphill battle in getting manufacturers to introduce safer versions. Their report digs deep into the history of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is tasked with making sure the products we use are safe. But its hands are tied somewhat, in that it may not institute regulations until it has considered voluntary safety standards, which the targeted industry itself can suggest.

What the CPSC wants is for generators to be designed differently so as to emit less carbon monoxide. But as it recently went through the steps to institute such a regulation, it was informed the generator industry was putting voluntary standards in place—a "cheaper" fix where a sensor would cut the engine if high carbon monoxide levels are detected. Thing is, these generators are sometimes put dangerously close to homes (the CPSC recommends they're a minimum of 20 feet away), and when used outdoors, the levels around the machine might not hit that threshold, despite the inside levels reaching a deadly point. The CPSC will have to spend years digging into the effectiveness of those standards before it can decide whether a mandatory safety standard is needed. (Read the full article, which recounts the stories of Americans recently killed by generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning.)

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