Two separate incidents over the past week, which resulted in several injuries and at least one death, highlight the potential risk of carbon monoxide poisoning on boats.
While the odorless and colorless gas is most commonly associated with winter injuries, due to leaks from heat sources, boats are another common cause of carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States.
Sunday morning, on Lake Mead in Nevada, at least a dozen people were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after boating. Five of the individuals had to be airlifted to medical attention. All 12 have been released from the hospital.
A boater on Bear Lake in Utah was not as fortunate. On Sunday evening, 22 year old Lucas Allyn died of carbon monoxide exposure. He had been sitting near the exhaust pipe of an older boat that did not have an outboard engine. When he fell ill, friends thought he was suffering from heatstroke.
In both cases, investigators say that fumes from an engine or generator likely caused the carbon monoxide poisoning. The symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure were not noticed until the victims were suffering from poisoning due to high levels of the gas in their blood.
Carbon monoxide is a significantly toxic gas that has no irritating factors that can allow someone to detect its presence. Because people often fail to promptly recognize symptoms of carbon monoxide, it is a leading cause of fatal poisonings in the United States.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide poisoning kills about 500 people in the U.S. annually, and is linked to about 15,000 emergency room visits. In many cases, the injuries or deaths could have been prevented by the use of carbon monoxide detectors and proper maintenance of heating systems and generators.
Health experts warn that carbon monoxide poisoning is a known risk of boating, and that boaters are particularly susceptible because they believe that since they are out in the open air there is enough ventilation to prevent a buildup of the lethal gas. In many instances, alcohol is also involved, dulling the senses of the victims and leading others to believe that signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are the result of intoxication.
In August 2000, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the U.S. Coast Guard initiated an investigation of carbon monoxide boating incidents. Since that time there have been about 800 incidents. More than 200 of those cases were due to generator exhaust and about 300 occurred on houseboats.
The U.S. Coast Guard warns that carbon monoxide levels can get so high around some houseboats that just a few breaths are deadly.