How to Avoid the Dangers of Carbon Monoxide in Boating

Last week we touched on the subject of the dangers of carbon monoxide in boating. Click here for that blog. Though we covered the dangers faced by the public and addressed issues the public needed to be aware of, can we realistically say that public awareness is the only issue needing to be addressed? This week we will look at the other side of the issue and examine legal cases as well as the role of both boat manufacturers and legislators. And ultimately address what actions you can take as a boat owner or boater to address the issue on a practical level.

Carbon monoxide in boating is still a major cause of mortality, including drownings

Avoiding the danger of carbon monoxide in boating requires cleaner engines, better exhaust systems and carbon monoxide alarms.

Now that boating season is drawing to a close in many areas, the dangers of carbon monoxide in boating may not seem to be a timely subject. But winter maintenance is upon us and this is the time of the year when repairs and modifications can be done in preparation for next year’s season. As a long time boater, myself, last week’s blog left me wondering about how many times I had been in a situation which could have turned deadly? I think about all the times I sat as a child in the rear of the boat while underway, or the hours trawling keeping an eye on the fishing poles, or any number of activities we all enjoy on the water. If you share this pastime then you will undoubtedly be taking a harder look at your boat as it comes out of the water with a higher awareness of safety issues. We hope you have a new understanding of how carbon monoxide poisoning can occur even in open air, but what is being done about the source of the problem?

Identifying the Dangers of Carbon Monoxide in Boating

In 2003, the Society of Automotive Engineers published an article saying that the only safe form of exhaust in houseboats was the vertical stack which carries exhaust above and beyond. They further stated that this was the only safe form of exhaust and urged all boating organizations to promote this solution. This conclusion was the result of studies by The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). It is elsewhere cited that such retrofitting is relatively easy and inexpensive, costing around $500. Manufacturers have also developed low carbon monoxide generators for marine purposes[1] which have reduced those emissions by up to 99%. Problem solved? Not when those in the recreational boating business fail to make changes to existing vessels and also fail to disclose the dangers that exist.

We assume that in most cases we are speaking about boats in motion or idling. But generators are also used to power everything onboard from appliances to air conditioners. And these generators can produce as much carbon monoxide as 300 cars. We have seen that many boats, including house boats and ski boats, have been fitted with side vents to circumvent the problem. This did nothing to protect 11-year-old Joshua Murphy who was enjoying a Lake Mead , Nevada vacation on a rented houseboat with his family. Joshua had been playing on a raft beside the houseboat when he was overcome with carbon monoxide from the side venting system. He was found floating face down in the water. A lawsuit was brought against both the boat rental owner and the manufacturer of the generator and settled for an undisclosed amount.

Fatal Carbon Monoxide Poisonings Sounded Alarm

In 1995 a man died at the Holly Bluff Marina in Orlando , Florida. J. Gary Russell died of carbon monoxide poisoning while doing engine repairs on the houseboat he had purchased from the marina in 1994. The lawsuit maintained that the marina had been negligent in its maintenance of the houseboat and sold it knowing it had a dangerous defect. Also named in the lawsuit were a Kentucky boat maker, Stardust Cruisers Inc. and a Wisconsin company, Kohler Co. who had manufactured the generator. Did the respondents come forward in a sincere attempt to address this known problem with carbon monoxide emissions which could prove deadly to those doing engine repairs or simply clearing debris? No, they countered with a request for discovery of Mr. Russell’s entire psychiatric history, claiming that alcohol abuse affected damages significantly. This was in response to a known problem and within the context of being fully aware that lethal conditions could arise very quickly and without warning in such a situation. But as we shall see, cases like this prompted big changes in the boating industry.

On April 22, 2007, the Deseret News, a Utah newspaper, ran an article regarding the carbon monoxide poisonings on Lake Powell. They quoted Jane McCammon, one of the scientists who had identified the problem and has worked tracking accidental drownings nationwide “There could be as many as 250 boat-related drownings per year (nationally) that are carbon monoxide poisoning first,” and she went on to explain that many areas were not doing the necessary follow up to rule out carbon monoxide poisoning as the initial cause. Due to the concentration of deaths brought under full scrutiny at Lake Powell, it was determined that between 1994 and 2004, 48% of the drowning deaths were carbon monoxide poisonings first. The number of deaths dropped drastically after a vigorous campaign to educate the public to the dangers. But are warnings enough?

Families Led Advocacy for Safer Boating

Some of the most vocal and effective advocates for carbon monoxide poisoning awareness in boating are the families who have lost loved one in drowning accidents. They have brought awareness to the public through signage, media, education and appearances at boating venues and boat shows. But wait. Where are the boat and generator manufacturers in all this?

Manufacturers Response to Carbon Monoxide in Boating

Curious, I did some searching. I first found the page for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. In 2018 they launched a Boating Safety Awareness Series campaign to spread awareness.  On this page it says:  “The best boating experience is a safe one and NMMA has compiled comprehensive safety information in this series of concise, easy-to-read brochures to reach boaters worldwide,” said Robert Newsome, NMMA’s senior vice president of strategy, engineering standards and membership. “This is a big step forward for our industry to have such comprehensive safety information available for all members of the industry to access easily and quickly online. However, when I clicked the link it took me to a page to order the paper brochures for information on the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning in boating. Obviously that information is not as accessible online as I might have wanted. In fact, a search of popular manufacturers did not turn up anything regarding carbon monoxide safety as the prime concern. I was hoping to find some reference to safety in the product descriptions, but unlike cars, the pitch seems to be amenities not safety issues (unrelated to flotation). I would dig deeper, however my goal was to see the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning highlighted as a responsibility to the public and that was not the case. Searching boat manufacturers in the role of Joe Public did not provide me with relevant information regarding the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. Technically it was available, but accessibility was questionable.

However, going a step further, I found a very positive note in speaking to boat manufacturers themselves. Jason Stockton of Trifecta Houseboats in Monticello, Kentucky provided an encouraging view of the current boat houseboat manufacturing industry. Although regulations have not changed much in over two decades, their company has risen to the challenge of addressing the safety concerns raised after the Lake Powell deaths. All new boats are equipped with generators with catalytic converters and CO safe emissions and are side vented, virtually eliminating high CO emissions.[2] They are regulated and inspected by the US Coast Guard regularly.

Educating the Public About CO Risks

In regards to educating the public, the focus is on the exposure dangers in older boats which had exhaust systems venting into the swim platform area and other issues such as mooring too close with improper venting systems in older boats. In addition, all new boats being manufactured are equipped with carbon monoxide detectors. So very proactive and positive changes have been made since information about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning in an outdoor setting by the manufacturers themselves. This shifts the focus of liability to older boats which have not been properly retrofitted to eliminate the danger. And we begin to understand that merely retrofitting to change venting is not enough without CO safe generators.

Evidently the role of educating the public has been delegated for the most part to the many boating associations who in turn educate at boating events and shows. However, the American Boat & Yacht Council does maintain a set of standards for all boats available at https://abycinc.org/page/standards. They state that  ‘In product liability lawsuits, ABYC Standards are the authoritative reference for evaluating issues of design, construction, maintenance, and product performance.’ These standards apply to building ,maintenance and repair. In addition, they offer many certification programs for maintenance and repair. They do not set standards requiring vertical stack exhaust systems, however. But obviously new standards for generators have had a large impact on boating manufacture and public safety.

Legislation for Safer Boating

So, as promised, I want to turn to the topic of legislation. In 2016, Minnesota became the first state in the country to require carbon monoxide detectors on boats. Remember our timeline? We had already expanded our understanding of carbon monoxide poisonings to include outdoor poisonings in addition to in-cabin poisonings for two decades. According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, the law mandated that all enclosed areas on a boat be equipped with a hard-wired, marine-certified carbon monoxide detector. The legislation is called Sophia’s Law named for 7-year-old Sophia Baechler who died of carbon monoxide leaking from a hole in an exhaust system. Her family lobbied for passage of the legislation. Her family, not the boating manufacturers. Not the generator manufacturers.

The American Boat and Yacht Council got on board with the idea, calling for mandatory carbon monoxide detectors in enclosed areas the same year. The National Marine Manufacturers Association’s David Dickerson was quoted by the Star Tribune as saying: “It could be a good step forward for safety,”. To date, 27 states require carbon monoxide detectors in enclosed areas on boats.

The question is, what guideline, regulation or legislation is in place to require vertical stack systems on boats? The United States Coast Guard lists federal regulations governing exhaust systems at https://uscgboating.org/regulations/assets/builders-handbook/VENTILATION.pdf  If you notice, The American Boat & yacht Council is cited as the ultimate authority on specific standards regarding exhaust systems. Although studies are ongoing there is no regulation or legislation in place to require vertical stack exhaust. Even though NIOSH found  “The vertical exhaust stack on Fun Country Marine houseboats performed well during the current study. Based upon the results of this and previous NIOSH evaluations of the vertical exhaust stack, NIOSH research indicates that when properly designed and installed, the vertical stack is a viable, low-cost, engineering control that will dramatically improve the safety of houseboat users. “

In conclusion: can we really trust that awareness and education are an adequate action to ensure public safety on the water?  What should we be requiring of our boating and generator manufacturers? What regulations should be in effect regarding older boats, particularly in resale and rental? And what should we be requiring of our legislators?

This is truly a field where litigation has been and may be the best catalyst for change. Thank you to the families who have turned their losses into actions and started the process.

Written by Becca Martin

[1] See Kohler’s Low CO generator http://www.kohlerpower.com/onlinecatalog/pdf/g2129.pdf. A personal note from Attorney Gordon Johnson, Jr. My father, Gordon Johnson, Sr. was the chief electrical engineer for Kohler Company from 1942 to 1986. He spent his career designing Kohler Electric Generators. My career has taken a very different trajectory than my father’s, who was proud of me, but didn’t think too highly of trial lawyers. Though my father was a pioneer, this entire era of CO awareness came after his retirement. Kohler originally did very badly on marine safety with their marine generators, but after some serious litigation, completely reversed itself with the Low CO generator, a marine only generator. Unfortunately, my home state of Wisconsin is home to other manufacturers of generators who are still leading from the rear in fighting US CPSC proposed regulations to make generators safer.  The same safety mechanisms that are now the standard in the marine industry are not found on portable electric generators. Every time I take a bike ride, I go past a plant where these deadly machines are manufactured.

[2] Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said for portable electric generators outside of the marine area. These generators, powered by lawnmower sized engines, produce as much CO as 1,000 new cars.

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