Winter Worst Time for Car Carbon Monoxide Deaths

Cars can be a significant culprit in Carbon Monoxide Deaths, particularly when people sleep in them for heat or to charge cell phones.  

By Rebecca Martin

This month carbon monoxide claimed the lives of three people in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Ruby Roberts, her daughter-in-law Ellay Mae Brown and four month old Zaida Ashford were found in a vehicle November 4th. Autopsy reports revealed carbon monoxide poisoning as the cause of death.

The Medical Examiner in Grand Rapids determined that the carbon monoxide deaths were accidental and found toxic levels of CO. Family members at the scene reported that the deceased adults often slept in their car and police investigations are wrapping up.

The Tragedy of Carbon Monoxide Deaths

While carbon monoxide deaths are avoidable these vehicle incidents demonstrate the desperation of human beings during cold weather, which can prove deadly.  We can only conjecture that the intent in Grand Rapids was to protect the welfare of the infant from  cold weather. We are left with a question as to whether the adults were aware of the significant danger of sleeping in a running, parked vehicle and just what the thought process was that led to this tragedy.

Car carbon monoxide risks

Car related carbon monoxide deaths happen for multiple reasons, including people sleeping in cars, using cars to charge cell phones and warming up car in the garage.

The desperation in these stories of  carbon monoxide deaths is palpable. During the ice storms in Texas last winter, a woman and 8-year-old girl perished due to a car left running in the garage to provide heat during the power outages. The Houston family of four had left a car running in the garage attached to their condo. The woman had been sitting in the car talking to a relative when she became disoriented and eventually passed out. The relative called the Houston Police Department. The police discovered the woman deceased inside the vehicle, the 8-year-old deceased in the condo and the man and a 7-year-old boy incapacitated. The survivors were treated at the hospital.

Carbon Monoxide Levels Rise Fast in a Car

In this instance the toxicity of the carbon monoxide in the vehicle was quick enough to prevent the woman from realizing the danger and turning off the vehicle which resulted in deathly levels within the condo.

When the source of CO is an engine running indoors versus a fuel burning appliance (such as a furnace), the levels climb so fast that people literally will “drop where they stop.”

A grim reminder that carbon monoxide can overcome victims quickly, impair judgement and one’s ability to react.  These incidents also speaks profoundly to the desperation which drives individuals to solutions which can be deadly.

Although we did not have the endless power outages that residents in Texas experienced, in Kentucky we had our share during the ice storms last winter. We had two outages in my area which lasted several days and I immediately sympathized with the lapse of judgement which occurred during the Houston case and wondered if one of the reasons the woman was oblivious to the dangers is that she was also on her phone and that phone was charging in the running vehicle. I remember distinctly using my car for a phone charger during the outages and making calls while my car was parked and running. The only difference is my car was parked outside but it easily could have been the same outcome if I hadn’t been aware that sitting in my parked car, even with the windows open, was not the smart thing to do. But how can one explain the lifeline one’s phone becomes during a power outage unless you have been in that position?  I literally was charging my phone every hour or so as it does take longer to charge a phone in a car. This made me curious about why it does take so long.

“Most built-in car USB ports aren’t able to produce enough juice, so multitasking with the phone while it’s charging will cause it to charge more slowly. The USB port in your car only produces 0.5A (amperage) output, and charging-specific ports have 1.0A. Compare this to the majority of wall outlets found in your home, which are typically at 15 to 20A, and there’s a big difference in charging speed.”

This amperage difference explains a scenario where someone uses a vehicle to charge their phone and decides to make a few calls and ultimately the phone still doesn’t charge. It’s not unusual that plugging a phone into your car’s USB may only provide around a 15% increase in charge so you are looking at running a vehicle for a long time to get your phone to 100%. This could prove deadly when the car is located in an attached garage even if the garage door is left open.

Tips to Speed up Car Charging

One of the solutions to speeding up the charging of your phone in your vehicle during a power outage is to turn on the Airplane Mode while charging. This stops all network services and allows your phone to charge faster. Another more substantial solution is to purchase a device that bypasses your newer car’s USB ports and connects directly with your car’s 12v ports. USB car chargers are quite inexpensive and can speed up your charge time substantially. I found them on Amazon by searching “fast car charger” for as little as $8.99.  It is a piece of safety equipment that might just be deemed necessary in our technology based culture during a power outage. How many of us are taking risks to charge phones in vehicles during outages in order to stay informed, connected and entertained? The more important question is how many of us are doing this safely? This is something to add to your winter safety checklist.

Also keep in mind that leaving a USB charger plugged in when not in use can also drain your car battery. In general, leaving them plugged in while not in use drains the car battery very slowly. That load increases if you leave a device attached. And one must consider other possible drains on the vehicle battery, such as car alarms, the internal memory of built-in GPS, and car radio. Some newer cars have an automatic shut off to stop charging when the vehicle is turned off. This is  specified in the owner’s manual or you can test this by observing whether your device continues to charge once the vehicle is turned off. In the event you are going to leave your car sitting for a few days, it is best to unplug. The bottom line is that if your vehicle must be running to charge your devices during a power outage, this needs to be outdoors with no one in the vehicle. In some areas it is illegal to keep a vehicle running unattended and can result in fines. This applies to whether your vehicle is parked on a public road or in your own driveway.

Garages Tied to Carbon Monoxide Deaths

Garage safety is a huge concern when speaking of carbon monoxide poisoning. You should never warm up your vehicle in the garage. Vehicles warm up more quickly by driving. The second safest way to warm up a vehicle is to back it out of the garage but remember this is illegal in many areas.

Can you put a carbon monoxide detector in the garage? Yes, but  most carbon monoxide detectors do not function below 40 degrees or over 100 degrees. The safer place is in the vicinity to the garage in the home if the garage is attached to the home. Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can occur in just a couple minutes and can remain for up to 10 hours in an enclosed garage.

Installing a garage exhaust fan can increase the air quality in your home by creating a negative air space which draws any exhaust out of the home during the brief intervals the car is running. This solution can be a bit expensive however and awareness that a running vehicle is almost instantly dangerous in the garage is still the best formula.

Parking Structures and Carbon Monoxide Deaths

If your housing uses a parking garage, be aware that these structures should be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors. Building owners have the responsibility of keeping their buildings safe for residents and this extends to safety in the parking garage. Because parking garages are not wide open spaces, the risk of carbon monoxide exposure exists. Even if it is not at an immediately toxic level, daily exposure can still produce health issues. In the event that there is carbon monoxide exposure of any type, it is the responsibility of the building owner to provide additional air quality controls such as parking garage specific ventilation systems.

Obviously newer parking structures should be the safest. What happens in older structures even if ventilation and sensor systems are present? There is a supposition that those systems are maintained regularly and replaced as needed. And another supposition is that those systems are run constantly and not only in weather or traffic conditions summarily decided on by management or workers. If you suspect that your management is not maintaining proper ventilation and sensor systems in your parking garage, contact the management. Another suggestion is to anonymously contact your local commercial HVAC contractor and suggest a followup with the management. A request for inspection may be required.

All closed parking garages are required to have proper ventilation and sensor systems. Open parking garages are considered open only if they meet certain requirements. Open garages must have ventilation on two or more sides, the openings must not comprise less than 20% of the perimeter on every tier and not less than 40% of the perimeter length of each tier.

Although Seattle was recently in the tech news for having a condominium complex that uses a robot to deliver cars to their parking spaces thus removing the risk to humans, it was also the scene of a recent lawsuit involving the parking garage used by West Precinct police officers. A sergeant with the precinct alleges that officers routinely leave their vehicles running in the basement parking garage and often 10-15 cars are left running at any given point in time. The continued exposure to those vehicles was allegedly making the sergeant sick. In June a judge agreed and ruled that the city must pay any and all fees that the sergeant incurs in his legal fight. I have been watching this case with some interest and look forward to seeing the outcome of this litigation primarily due to the retaliation the sergeant has received upon reporting on this situation and the city’s failure to comply with demands.

Exhaust Pipe Failures can Cause Carbon Monoxide Deaths

In speaking about exhaust maintenance in a vehicle, I am reminded of a personal experience which still bothers me. When my car sounded louder than normal, I took it to a nationally recognized muffler shop. While I waited for a new muffler to be installed I read the literature in the waiting room extolling how all exhaust systems were welded on in keeping with the original vehicle manufacturer’s specifications. I was very happy over the lifetime warranty for any repairs that might ensue once my vehicle was done. My drive home was peacefully quiet and all seemed well. The following day I had to make an unexpected trip a couple of hours away. On my way home a terrible noise developed and I hobbled off the road at the first exit ramp with services. Being around closing time for most garages I was happy to catch a mechanic at a local outlet that took time to check out the source of the fearsome clanging that had occurred.  The answer was a bit shocking. My muffler had been installed using a wire clamp and was totally disconnected. He quickly reattached it and suggested I return to the original installer at my earliest convenience.

As often happens, it took me a few weeks to address the issue and with a lifetime warranty, I was comfortable that my needs would be addressed. But when I called the number, there was no answer. So I chose the next location on google and made an appointment as it was a national chain. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the dealer I had gone to was totally unknown to them and that his method of replacement was not advocated by his parent company. I produced my paperwork and my warranty contract was honored regardless and my muffler was correctly installed.

Not too long after the incident I had a routine scan as a cancer survivor. The doctor casually mentioned that I appeared to have some carbon monoxide exposure. Since my home has no fuel burning devices I wondered if my nausea in the car might be connected to that improperly installed muffler? It’s not something we think about in general and the question only arose because of the timely occurrence of my scans. Otherwise I would not have put those things together.

Inspect More than the Muffler

It just accentuates the importance of maintaining and replacing exhaust pipes, particularly in older vehicles.  In my case, it also involved following up on work done to make sure everything is as it should be.

I have said on several occasions that one of the most important things you can do after a winter storm is to make sure your exhaust system is clear of snow. Whether your car has been sitting parked or you run off the road into a drift by accident. It is very important to check the exhaust opening any time you have to dig out of snow.

You can usually tell if your muffler needs to be replaced with several indicators; your vehicle makes a sound roaring sound, you smell fumes while driving, your gas mileage suddenly decreases and you seem to be having engine problems. In the personal case I related, my exhaust was actually blocking the exhaust from the engine creating performance issues as well as noise, in my case a loss of engine power.

An inspection by a mechanic will include an inspection of the brackets holding your muffler in place as well as the integrity of the muffler and exhaust system. He will look for rust, cracks or physical damage to the muffler itself. Exposure to rain and moisture in the air can speed up corrosion. If you drive short distances routinely there will be more moisture build up in your exhaust system which can lead to it rusting. The use of salt on the roads can also increase the likelihood of rust developing.

We have all done it; hit a pothole we weren’t expected or bottomed out on a bump or debris in the road. It is very important to have your exhaust looked at following any type of incident that might have damaged your exhaust system.

Maintaining your exhaust system also lengthens the life of your catalytic converter. Replacement of a catalytic converter is an expensive repair. By having annual inspections of your muffler you can avoid the more costly repairs which could potentially be needed.

As hot as your muffler gets, a dirty muffler gets hotter. By making sure everything is clean and functioning properly you will reduce the temperatures and increase the longevity of your muffler.

Another symptom of a failing exhaust system are vibrations coming from the steering wheel or gas pedal. The entire car will shake if there is a major failure. This could impede your ability to operate the vehicle safely. It is not safe to drive your vehicle if you suspect an exhaust problem. Ignoring the problem can lead to hazardous fumes invading the cabin or even fire. A faulty exhaust system can also damage other components in your engine leading to more costly repairs. And lastly, a properly maintained exhaust system is good for the environment and contributes to public health.

With winter weather just around the corner, we have to take a closer look at two components related to cars and carbon monoxide deaths: the vehicle, and the garage or parking arrangement for our vehicles. Proper precautions can avert both health issues and tragedies. Be proactive, be aware and don’t lose common sense in the event of winter storms and the inevitable power outages which winter brings.


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