Gasoline-powered portable generators are coveted items when power goes out. But they emit deadly carbon monoxide and have been blamed for more than 1,000 deaths since 2005, including that of a Morgan Park woman.
With safety and industry advocates unable to agree on how to make them safer, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., is pushing to establish a mandatory, federal standard. It would limit carbon monoxide emissions from portable generators and require that they be equipped with emergency shutoff sensors.
“Families have died from these generators,” says Rush, whose Chicago district includes Morgan Park. “This is a horrible occurrence that happens all too frequently in our nation.”
Rush introduced a bill Thursday in the U.S. House with U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., as cosponsor to mandate the safety steps. He says he was moved to act after reading a Chicago Sun-Times investigation into the hazards of portable generators.
When improperly used in an enclosed space, gas-powered portable generators can kill in a matter of minutes.
They’re supposed to be used only outdoors, at least 20 feet away from any home and not on a porch or near an open window or air intake.
Deaths typically have occurred after extreme weather knocks out power and people turn to generators, not realizing the machine they’re running in a garage or basement is emitting colorless and odorless carbon monoxide.
When Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana in 2020, eight of the 15 deaths that resulted there were caused not by the storm but by carbon monoxide from portable generators.
There’s a socioeconomic connection, too: People have been killed after falling behind on electric bills and using generators because their power was shut off.
“That is a reality in urban areas and rural areas among poor people,” Rush says.
The legislation would require new generators to conform to the strictest portions of two existing but voluntary standards: one developed by UL of Northbrook — a safety and standards company formerly called Underwriters Laboratories — and the other from the Portable Generators Manufacturers’ Association.
New generators would be required to have a sensor that would stop the machine if carbon monoxide levels are detected at 400 parts per million or if it reached an average of 150 parts per million over 10 minutes. That’s the UL standard, which is twice as strict on emissions as the PGMA standard, which also addresses additional safety issues such as electrical shock and tipovers.
Ken Boyce, a UL senior director and engineer, says that, even though the machines are supposed to only be used outdoors, people don’t always abide by that.
“The shutoff really becomes important when the generator is misused,” Boyce says.
He says he has heard stories of storm victims who didn’t want their generator to get wet or stolen, so they moved it to a garage. And of people who, behind on their electric bills, ran a generator in a basement because they didn’t want their neighbors knowing their electricity was cut off.
“There are a lot of different profiles,” Boyce says. “They’re all tragic.”
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has been trying to come up with a mandatory standard since 2016. Why has it taken so long?
“Under CPSC’s strict statutory requirements for mandatory rule-making, we must evaluate the effectiveness of and industry compliance with applicable voluntary standards before we can move forward with requiring our own mandatory standard,” a CPSC spokeswoman says.
Meanwhile, the agency encourages consumers to look for generators that meet at least one of the voluntary standards and to use the devices only outdoors and at least 20 feet from a home. It also advises installing battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms on each level of a home.
The effects of carbon monoxide depend on the concentration and exposure. People might notice headache, fatigue and nausea starting at about 70 parts per million. Disorientation, loss of consciousness and death is possible at sustained concentrations above 150 to 200 parts per million.
Testing by Consumer Reports found the dangerous gas can build up in an attached garage even with the garage door open.
A Morgan Park woman was killed in June 2017 after running a generator in an enclosed space. In October 2013, a family of four who’d just moved to a home in Merrillville, Indiana, was killed after running a generator in the garage for heat and power because their utilities hadn’t been connected yet.
Gordon Johnson, a Skokie lawyer who has testified before the Consumer Product Safety Commission and has represented people in carbon monoxide poisoning court cases, says people sometimes survive but suffer brain and organ damage.
“The problem with the current engines is you can pass out before you realize you’re at risk,” Johnson says. “They’re just so lethal. And it doesn’t take very long.”