Carbon monoxide poisoning from houseboats, cabin cruisers and ski boats is a rapidly rising problem, fueled by boat design characteristics and boaters’ ignorance of the hazards. Over the last several years, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have been working together to investigate, find solutions to, and raise awareness of this epidemic.
CO is a potentially deadly gas that is odorless, colorless and tasteless and is found as a byproduct of internal combustion engines. On boats, this gas is found in the exhaust emitted by the pleasure craft’s electric generator and drive engine. Federal officials have known for some time that carbon monoxide can reach lethal concentrations from generator exhaust that gathers at the stern of houseboats, but only in the last few years have they found evidence that carbon monoxide can gather in deadly concentrations behind ski boats, cabin cruisers and even personal watercraft. The highest concentrations of CO are often around swim decks, an area where occupants frequently sit while a boat idles or is traveling at low-speed and where the exhaust ports are located.
A report detailing recent investigations at Lake Powell, Utah, from 1990 to 2000 found 111 CO poisonings, 74 on houseboats, 37 occurred on other types of recreational boats. A NIOSH report, “Boat-Related Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisonings” cited 93 fatalities and 377 non-fatal CO related poisonings identified on or around boats through March 19, 2003. NIOSH and Coast Guard believe, however, that the incidence rate is much higher, because many emergency personnel the cause of these fatalities as simply drowning.