Keyless car owner alert: Carbon monoxide poisonings


keyless ignition photo

If you have a keyless car system, you may be at heightened risk of a potentially deadly problem: More than two dozen people have died and another several dozen others have debilitating illnesses such as brain injuries related to carbon monoxide poisoning, according to a new York Times report: Deadly Convenience: Keyless Cars and Their Carbon Monoxide Toll.

Keyless ignitions are very popular. Citing the auto information website Edmunds, the NYT says keyless systems are now standard in over half of the 17 million new vehicles sold annually in the United States. But because the cars are so easy to turn on and off with the flick of a button, it can be all too easy to become distracted and not turn the car off – or to think it has been turned off when it hasn’t. Consumer Reports describes the problem : “If the car is parked in a closed garage attached to a house, especially a basement-level garage, carbon monoxide fumes from the idling engine may seep into the living area, possibly harming anyone in the house.”

The problem can be even worse with silent hybrids:

“A subset of keyless-ignition cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids, pose an even stealthier problem, because they are virtually silent when in electric mode, which they may well be when sitting still after parking. A driver doesn’t have to be absent-minded to assume that the car is shut down—after all, the engine isn’t running. But the car may not be truly off. The engine could restart itself, say to address a climate control need, potentially sending carbon monoxide into the residence.”

The risk was identified early by safety advocates. From the NYT article:

“The risk identified initially was theft, because drivers might leave the key fob in the vehicle by accident. (In conventional ignitions, under regulations adopted in the 1990s, the key cannot be removed unless the car is in park.) The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s general counsel warned automakers in 2002 that keyless ignitions would be prone to mishaps arising from human error. In 2006, the agency updated its regulations to state that with keyless ignitions, “a warning must be sufficient to catch a driver’s attention before he or she exits the vehicle without the keys.”

Many safety advocates such as Consumer Reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are asking automakers to add safety features to prevent this, such as an audible alert or an automatic shutoff when a driver leaves the car. Some cars have safety features but most don’t – ” … a survey of 17 car companies by The New York Times found that while some automakers go beyond the features recommended by the standards group, others fall short.”

For now in many keyless cars, the burden of safety falls directly on the driver. Here are a few tips:

  • When purchasing a car with a keyless system, ask about safety features
  • Read your owner’s manual to understand how your system works
  • Be aware of the problem and take extra precautions to shut vehicles down
  • Have a working carbon monoxide detector in your home

NHTSA offers more safety tips in this short video:

Terrifying Carbon Monoxide Incidents Should Be a Reminder


Image credit: CDC OSHA Fact Sheet

Image credit: CDC OSHA Fact Sheet

Over the weekend, a NY restaurant manager quickly succumbed to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and another 28 people were rushed from the restaurant and treated for symptoms. The CO leak was serious enough that first responders felt light-headed on entering the building.

A few days later, a tragedy-in-the-making was narrowly averted at a time-share resort in Ogunquit Maine, where 21 people were poisoned by CO. You can read the scary story of a Connecticut couple who were poisoned and nearly succumbed. They experienced flu-like symptoms and lethargy. After the man passed out and broke his nose, they left their room to go to a drug store. On the way, they told the the front desk manager about their symptoms. His wise call to 9-1-1 probably saved 21 lives.

And now we hear that an Idaho family of four likely died of CO poisoning.

These experiences highlight the importance of having working CO detectors in both residences and public buildings. Every year, an estimated 400+ people die from carbon monoxide poisoning and thousands more are treated at hospitals. Often called “the silent killer,” CO is an odorless, colorless gas that can leak when fuel-burning appliances like space heaters, water heaters, and generators malfunction. It can also build up quickly when cars, grills, lawn-mowers and other fuel-burning machines are used in confined spaces.

If you don’t have one, here’s a consumer guide for How to Buy a Carbon Monoxide Detector. Here are state laws about Carbon Monoxide detectors.

Here is some advice from the New York Department of Health:

  • If you suspect that you or someone else has CO poisoning, seek fresh air immediately and call 911.
  • Schedule annual maintenance on home heating systems, including furnaces, fireplaces, chimneys and other heat sources such as non-electric hot water heaters, to ensure that they are properly-vented and maintained.
  • Install battery-powered CO alarms in your home. Check them twice a year to make sure the batteries are working properly. Checking the CO alarms when clocks are adjusted for daylight saving time is a useful way to remember.
  • Operate portable generators outdoors and downwind of buildings. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a distance of at least 25 feet from the house.
  • Never operate fuel-powered equipment or tools in a garage, basement, or any other enclosed space.
  • Never use a gas range or oven for warmth.
  • Never use a gas or charcoal barbecue grill in your home or other enclosed space.
  • Make sure that non-electric space heaters are appropriately installed and vented, and that they are routinely inspected and maintained.
  • Never run a car or truck inside any garage or structure, even with the door open.
  • Know where boat engine and generator exhaust outlets are located. Keep away from these areas if the boat is idling.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Source
Because CO is odorless, colorless, and otherwise undetectable to the human senses, people may not know that they are being exposed. The initial symptoms of low to moderate CO poisoning are similar to the flu (but without the fever). They include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

High level CO poisoning results in progressively more severe symptoms, including:

  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of muscular coordination
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Ultimately death
  • State statutes

Resources

Carbon Monoxide Safety Association

CDC information & fact sheets and FAQs

Before and after winter storms: advance planning and filing claims


With a major ice storm under our belt, many area residents are just getting power and heat back and we are facing more potential adverse weather over the weekend.

If your home has been damaged or destroyed, you may want to invest two and a half minutes to watch the Insurance Information Institute’s advice on how to file a homeowner’s claim:

Preparing for the next storm
With some advance notice, there are things you can do to prepare for winter storm emergencies. Here are a few good resources:

The American Red Cross suggests a list of supplies to include in a home emergency kit, covering such items as water, food, first aid supplies, clothing and bedding, tools and emergency supplies, and special items.

Winter Power Outage Tips – an excellent resource on what to do before, during, and after an outage compiled by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Freezing & Bursting Pipes (PDF) – good tips for preventing frozen pipes.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning After an Emergency – The Centers for Disease Control inform us that every year, more than 500 people die in the U. S. from accidental CO poisoning and, sadly, here in New England, we have had carbon monoxide-related deaths after the recent storms. In Massachusetts, the law states that you must have a carbon monoxide detector on every level of your home, excluding unfinished basements, attics and crawl spaces. You may need more than one per floor because detectors must be placed within 10 feet of a bedroom door. This is good advice for homeowners whether or not your state has a law. Be sure to refresh your batteries periodically.