Generators poison thousands of people a year. The U.S. has failed to force safety

This article was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power, and The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up to receive ProPublica’s biggest stories as soon as they’re published, and sign up for The Brief Weekly to get up to speed on essential coverage of Texas issues.

Three days after Hurricane Ida slammed ashore on Aug. 29, leveling homes and knocking out power along the Louisiana coast, Craig Curley Sr. maneuvered through a packed crowd at Home Depot to reach the aisle with portable generators.

Curley, 50, snagged one of the last units in stock, a 6,250-watt Briggs & Stratton, and drove it to the home of his ex-wife, Demetrice Johnson, in Jefferson Parish. 

He tried one last time to persuade Johnson, 54, to take their children to stay with relatives in Houston as officials warned that it might take weeks to restore power across the region. But she was adamant: With a generator to power her appliances, she felt safe staying. 

Officials estimated it would take weeks to restore power across Louisiana after Hurricane Ida.Joe Gough for NBC News

That evening, Curley helped set up the machine in Johnson’s tiny backyard. He fired up the engine and hung around long enough to make sure the air conditioner was blowing cold. He showed his teenage son how to restart it and then headed home.

“If I’d known what I know now,” Curley said, “I never would have bought that damn thing.”

By the next morning, his ex-wife and their children, Craig Curley Jr., 17, and Dasjonay Curley, 23, were dead, poisoned by carbon monoxide that fire officials said probably flowed from the generator’s exhaust and into the home through the back door. 

Portable generators can save lives after major storms by powering medical equipment, heaters and refrigerators when the grid collapses. But desperate residents who rely on the machines to keep their families safe sometimes end up poisoning them, instead.

The devices can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars, according to federal figures. They kill an average of 70 people in the U.S. every year and injure thousands more, making them one of the most dangerous consumer products on the market.

As climate change and the country’s aging infrastructure combine to cause worsening storms and longer power outages, experts warn that more people are turning to portable generators every year — a trend that benefits manufacturers’ bottom lines while putting more people at risk. 

At least six people died of carbon monoxide poisoning after Hurricane Ida. All of the deaths, including those of Curley’s family, were connected to generators, the according to Louisiana Health Department. The machines also killed at least 10 people in February after a massive winter storm knocked out power across Texas, causing more than half of the known carbon monoxide deaths linked to the outage, according to medical examiner investigations and incident reports. And warnings about the threat posed by generators resurfaced last week after tornadoes left hundreds of thousands of customers without power in Kentucky and neighboring states. 

The federal government identified the danger of portable generators more than two decades ago. But regulations that would force companies to reduce generators’ carbon monoxide emissions and make the machines safer have been stymied by a statutory process that empowers manufacturers to regulate themselves, former government officials and consumer advocates say. That has resulted in limited safety upgrades and continued deaths, NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

Scandar Myles, left, and Kendrick Cook start a generator in Hammond, La., on Sept. 2 after Hurricane Ida.Sean Rayford / Getty Images file

The generator industry has resisted attempts by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, to require the devices to emit less carbon monoxide. Instead, the industry proposed a cheaper, voluntary safety upgrade in 2018, suggesting that manufacturers install carbon monoxide sensors that automatically shut engines off when high levels of the colorless, odorless gas are detected in enclosed spaces. Three years later, not all manufacturers have adopted the change, and safety advocates say the shut-off switches fall short of what’s needed to protect consumers.

“The process has been rigged and delayed and dragged out at the mercy of profits,” said Elliot Kaye, a former chair of the CPSC who led a thwarted effort to require safer generators.  “And the cost of that has been lost lives.”

The continued danger is part of a broader failure at every level of government to protect residents from carbon monoxide, a yearlong investigation by NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune has found. Carbon monoxide deaths predictably follow every major storm and power outage, even though they are preventable, experts say. A patchwork of lax policies and…

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