Houseboat Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Study Leads to New Standards

Older gas-powered generators that are frequently used on houseboats may pose a serious and potentially life-threatening risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the findings of new research. 

In a study published this month in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) warn that uncontrolled houseboat generators can put out carbon monoxide levels in excess of 1,200 parts per billion (ppb), which can cause symptoms like headaches or nausea within 30 to 45 minutes, or cause individuals to die or become unconscious within a few hours.

“Houseboats that exhaust uncontrolled generator combustion gases beneath or near the rear deck indicated that extremely hazardous carbon monoxide concentrations can accumulate in that area,” Captain Ronald M. Hall, deputy branch chief of the Engineering and Physical Hazards branch of the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology said in a press release. “These hazardous conditions were exacerbated when the drive engines were operating, placing employees who worked on or around the boats, as well as the boat operators, at risk.”

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Exposure to Carbon Monoxide Gas May Cause Permanent Brain Damage, Serious Injury or Death.


NIOSH launched the investigation into houseboat gas generators in 2000. Since the investigation was concluded, the agency has convinced the two largest manufacturers of marine generators to introduce low carbon monoxide emission models. These newer generators, which began to appear on the market in 2004 and 2005, cut CO concentrations by 99% in occupied areas and around boats.

NIOSH later worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enact regulations. According to the study, since 2009 “U.S. generator and marine engine manufacturers have been manufacturing commercially available cleaner burning engines that dramatically reduce CO emissions.”

Carbon monoxide is a significantly toxic gas that has no smell, color, taste or other irritating factors that can allow someone to detect its presence. As a result, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often not attributed to a gas leak, leading to further injury.

Exposure to carbon monoxide is the leading cause of fatal poisonings in the United States, and injures about 40,000 people each year. Many people who survive exposure are left with permanent brain damage from carbon monoxide gas.

According to the CDC, there are generally more than 430 carbon monoxide deaths each year in the United States, with more than 15,000 people requiring emergency room treatment following exposure to the gas annually.


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