Offshore InjuryBlog

Dangers of Boat Related Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas emitted from internal combustion engines, like those found on many boats' electric generators and drive engines. Federal officials have discovered that emissions of carbon monoxide can reach lethal levels of concentration at the stern of houseboats and behind ski boats, cabin cruisers, and even personal watercraft. The highest levels of carbon monoxide can often be found on boats' swim decks, an area where passengers often gather.

The Tragic Death of a Young Man from Carbon Monoxide

In 2013, a 22-year-old young man and recent graduate named Lucas Allyn perished after a day of boating on Bear Lake in Utah. He and his friends were in an older boat that did not have an outboard engine, so the exhaust of the boat was particularly potent. Lucas spent the day on the lake at the rear of the boat, pulling his friends out of the water after skiing.

Later that night, Lucas passed out and his friends believed that he was suffering from heatstroke. They called 911, and a little over an hour later, Lucas was pronounced dead. His autopsy revealed that it was carbon monoxide poisoning.

The Danger of Poison in the Open Air

Prior to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigations, experts thought it was impossible to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning when outdoors. NIOSH researchers, however, discovered that concentrations of the gas could reach such high levels under certain conditions that they exceeded a monitor's sensor range.

Dr. Robert Baron, the medical advisor for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, has been studying every potential carbon monoxide death since the mid-1990s alongside other officials in similar positions. He first hypothesized that carbon monoxide poisoning was causing the deaths of boat passengers when he catalogued every death that occurred on Lake Powell—he found numerous accounts of unconsciousness that didn’t make sense unless carbon monoxide was present.

Subsequent autopsies then began to affirm his hypothesis: carbon monoxide is killing boaters.

Baron says there are more than 800 confirmed cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in U.S. waters, but he asserts that there are likely many more. The issue is that it’s an underreported event because people don’t realize the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning, and medical examiners don’t think to test for carbon monoxide in the first place. Because boaters are enjoying the open air and the boat is moving so frequently, they assume that there’s no risk of carbon monoxide exposure.

In actuality, boaters have to be aware of what is called the “station wagon” effect. Essentially, the movement of the boat will create a low-pressure area at the end of the boat, which circulates carbon monoxide instead of expelling it. As a result, people who swim or sit near this area will be at as high a risk for carbon monoxide poisoning as someone sitting in a closed room. Baron highlights that in some cases, poisoning can occur in as little as a few seconds to 15 minutes of exposure.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

However, some states have begun to act on the new evidence. For instance, some states forbid boats from idling when people are near the swim deck or the rear of the boat. Boating safety advocates urge passengers to sit in the seats designed for them—not on the engine cover or near the ladder of the boat.

Additional regulations must be employed to protect boat passenger safety. The Coast Guard has already recalled six different houseboat models in order to redirect rear-venting exhaust systems. The Coast Guard is also implementing a new warning label system to educate the public on the dangers of outside carbon monoxide poisonings on recreational marine vessels.

Another option for reducing carbon monoxide concentration is to divert fumes away from where passengers tend to gather by using dry stacks (vertical exhaust systems). Dry stacks are simple to install, even in instances of retrofitting, and on boats that used the systems, NIOSH investigators found that no high carbon monoxide concentrations were detectable.

Carbon monoxide poisoning poses a real danger to recreational boaters, yet little information regarding the hazard has been shared with the public. If you or a loved one has been injured on a boat due to carbon monoxide exposure, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact a maritime injury attorney from Arnold & Itkin today for a free consultation.

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