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BETHESDA, Md. – The federal government is moving forward with sweeping new regulations to make portable generators safer, citing the rising number of deaths they cause and manufacturers’ failure to protect consumers.
On Wednesday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission unanimously voted in favor of a proposal that would require portable generators to emit less carbon monoxide and automatically shut off when the deadly gas reaches a certain level. The invisible and odorless gas emitted by the devices kills an average of 85 people a year, making generators one of the deadliest consumer products regulated by the CPSC.
If the proposal goes through, the federal government will, for the first time, require companies to make generators that protect consumers from carbon monoxide poisoning – the most important step the agency has taken after decades of investigating the danger.
“This issue has been around for too long, and too many people die every year,” CPSC Chairman Alexander Hoehn-Saric said shortly after Wednesday’s vote. “This is a huge step forward.”
The agency’s proposal follows an investigation by NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune that revealed the lack of protective measures underpinning the worst carbon monoxide poisoning event in US history. In Texas, at least 19 residents died from carbon monoxide poisoning and more than 1,400 others were treated in emergency rooms during a winter storm that hit the state in 2021, the news organizations found. At least 10 of those deaths involved generators.
“The importance of safety for portable generators will only increase as demand for them grows in the face of extreme weather events,” said Commissioner Mary Boyle during Wednesday’s meeting.
The Portable Generator Manufacturers’ Association, the industry’s largest trade group, said the agency has “no legal authority” to implement the rule it is proposing, citing safeguards the industry has put in place.
“There is a voluntary consumer product safety standard that is effective in preventing death and injury and is substantially complied with by the industry,” said Joseph Harding, the group’s technical director, in a statement ahead of the vote. The industry group declined to comment afterwards.
Under federal law, once manufacturers propose voluntary safety standards, the CPSC can only create mandatory standards if it can demonstrate that the industry’s approach isn’t working or that not enough manufacturers have adopted it.
The safety standards of the trade group, formed in 2018 to stave off the federal government’s latest attempt at intervention, are more lenient than what the agency is now proposing: they don’t limit how much carbon monoxide generators can emit and have a higher automatic shutdown threshold the device.
In 2022, two months after news outlets detailed the deadly cost of the government’s failure to regulate portable generators, the agency concluded that the industry’s efforts were insufficient. It found that less than a third of companies accepted the voluntary protections and that manufacturers had not done enough to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
“This problem will not go away on its own. In fact, we anticipate incidents of consumer death or injury are likely to increase,” Janet Buyer, a CPSC technical project manager, told commissioners during a recent meeting, urging them to implement tighter safety precautions.
The buyer pointed to an incident in Louisiana reported by news organizations in the wake of Hurricane Ida in 2021: A woman and her two children were killed by carbon monoxide from a portable generator set up outside with the exhaust just inches was away from her back door and facing inward.
The Portable Generator Manufacturers’ Association has denied the device was at fault, saying the user appeared to have failed to follow instructions on the warning label, which Harding said called for “directing engine exhaust away from occupied buildings.”
But Buyer said it’s not uncommon for carbon monoxide from generators to enter homes — a scenario that happened 63 times in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Ida. The generator in the case she highlighted had an automatic shutdown sensor, but it’s unclear if it activated. Therefore binding standards are necessary, said Buyer.
The Portable Generator Manufacturers’ Association also disputed the CPSC’s conclusion that few manufacturers are adopting the voluntary standards, and claimed that members of the group have been making generators that conform to them since last year. An estimated 60% of available generators will have such safety features by the third quarter of 2023, Susan Orenga, chief executive officer of the trade group, said in a statement.
The public has 60 days to comment on the CPSC’s proposed rule, which the agency may change in response. The Commission will vote on the final version in September.
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