Lake Powell, UT-Three separate carbon-monoxide-related incidents at Lake Powell in the past week that left one girl dead and sent 21 more people for medical treatment have park officials refocusing on the dangers of the deadly gas.
The death of 7-year-old Megan Evans was the first since 2003 at the lake, where officials who saw scores of carbon monoxide poisonings in the 1990s were among the first to recognize the risks of the quiet killer. Fifteen deaths have been due to carbon monoxide at Powell since 1990.
“It’s tremendously painful for the park, because [carbon monoxide safety] is a No. 1 priority, and has been,” said Sara Newman, a public risk management specialist with the National Park Service, which manages Glen Canyon Recreation Area and Lake Powell.
“The fact that these . . . things occurred back to back, that gives our parks tremendous concern about it and I’m sure their efforts will be even more reinforced.”
State officials put out an alert after the events of last week, warning of the risks of the poison gas.
Between 1980 and April 2007, there were 750 carbon monoxide poisonings nationwide. Nearly one in four – 179 – occurred at Lake Powell, according to a federal study updated by the nonprofit group Double Angel.
A 2004 study by the National Institute of Occupational Health Safety said that, of 176 carbon monoxide poisonings over a 14-year period at Lake Powell, 69 percent were caused by exhaust from the generator.
In 2000, two brothers, 11-year-old Dillon Dixey and 8-year-old Logan Dixey, of Colorado, drowned while swimming off the back of their family’s houseboat. Their deaths focused broad attention on the issue.
Congressional hearings were held in 2001 leading to an educational campaign at Lake Powell and prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to recall houseboats with a particular design in which generator exhaust vented beneath the extended swim deck on the back of the boat, an area labeled “the death zone.”
But more needs to be done, says Ken Dixey, the father of Dillon and Logan, who founded Double Angel, a nonprofit created to reduce the risks of carbon monoxide in boating. He wants the Coast Guard to mandate tough standards, including safe boat designs and catalytic converters or other emissions controls for boats and generators that could eliminate nearly all of the carbon monoxide emissions. Some companies have started incorporating the designs voluntarily, but that is not enough, he says.
“That’s what needs to be done,” Dixey said. “The product needs to be made safe. All this education is great, in our opinion, but you’re never going to reach everybody.”
Dixey sent a letter to the Coast Guard last week, asking what they planned to do about the type of shower generator that led to Evans’ death.
Repeated calls to the Coast Guard and its boating safety office were not returned.
Kevin Schneider, a spokesman for Glen Canyon Recreation Area, said carbon monoxide has been a widely known hazard at the park for more than a decade.
“Back in the 1990s, we at Glen Canyon were the ones who actually discovered that it was carbon monoxide that was causing all these unexplained drownings,” he said.
The park worked with businesses in the area and boat manufacturers and, as a result, generators on the houseboats rented at Lake Powell today have stacked exhaust systems, where emissions are vented upward, away from where people might be swimming.
The park also has radio spots and newspaper ads warning visitors of the dangers of carbon monoxide.
“It is a huge risk,” says Newman. “What I would like is for [the federal Environmental Protection Agency] and us to look into the boats themselves and have regulations, really beyond the capacity of the Park Service, and have safer boats so we don’t have to deal with this.”
The typical houseboat motor puts out 188 times the amount of carbon monoxide as a car, says Jane McCammon, who wrote the 2004 NIOSH study on Lake Powell. Most cabin cruisers have two motors, and a generator to run appliances in the boat as well, combining to produce extraordinary amounts of carbon dioxide, she said.
But the designs of skiboats and cabin cruisers continue to put people in areas with potential for carbon monoxide exposure, she said.
Warning labels help, McCammon said, but she would like to see engineering changes that reduce the volume of carbon monoxide produced by the engines and vent exhaust away from occupied areas.
Tougher rules offered
In April, the EPA proposed a rule aimed at reducing by at least 20 percent carbon monoxide emissions from inboard motors, like those on houseboats. The new regulations could take effect in 2009.
And California imposed tough new rules on carbon monoxide and other emissions from boats this year.
A task force, made up of representatives from EPA, the Coast Guard, the Park Service and industry organizations continues to meet to address carbon monoxide risks.
And Schneider said the incidents this week heighten the awareness of the risks of carbon monoxide.
“This past week has been almost wildly unusual, and very tragic as well,” Schneider said, “but I think the park and the business community and the boat manufacturers and our partners around the area have really done quite a bit to get the message out to visitors that, no, you shouldn’t swim anywhere near your boat’s exhaust.”