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Stern alert

Dragging behind a boat or even hanging out near exhaust puts boaters at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. Some blame engine design and lack of warning labels, Charles Duhigg reports, but others point to operator error.

August 24, 2004|Charles Duhigg

The air that killed Mark Tostado on Labor Day weekend was calm and hot, the product of the sunny days that draw boaters year-round to Lake Havasu, on the California-Arizona line.

Tostado, 31, a Huntington Beach personal fitness trainer and military veteran, had waded into the lake's shallow Bridgewater Channel last year to say goodbye to a woman standing behind two idling boats. She playfully stole his hat and turned away. When she looked back less than a minute later, Tostado was gone. His body was found the next day.

An autopsy revealed that Tostado's blood was 40.7% saturated with carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas released as engines burn gasoline. Tostado presumably breathed a pocket of exhaust from nearby boats, passed out and drowned.

A spate of such deaths, more than 100 nationwide since 1990, prompted the California Assembly to recently pass a bill that would force boat sellers to put carbon monoxide warning labels on vessels and outlaw boaters from standing or hanging onto swim platforms attached to the stern while an engine is running. The state Senate passed the legislation Monday.

But the families of carbon monoxide victims, legislators and physicians want boat makers and the Coast Guard, which regulates boat and marine engine design, to do more. They say improved marine engines and an aggressive public-awareness campaign about carbon monoxide dangers will help save lives.

In addition to the 111 confirmed deaths from carbon monoxide, independent and government scientists say that boat exhaust may be a factor in 40% of all drownings near boats, as many as 200 per year. The data are uncertain because many drowning victims never get tested for carbon monoxide poisoning.

"We solved this problem with cars," said Dr. Robert Baron, medical director of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona. "If five or 10 years ago boat manufacturers had put efforts into research, these people would still be alive."

Boat and engine manufacturers say that it's time-consuming and costly to develop new engines, and that boaters behave irresponsibly.

They point to "teak surfing," in which swimmers hang off the swim platform. In May 2003, teak surfer Anthony Farr, 11, inhaled carbon monoxide from a boat's exhaust pipes under the platform, passed out and drowned in Folsom Lake near Sacramento.

"The issue is the stupidity of people who let their kids hang around the business end of a boat," said Larry Meddock, director of the Water Sports Industry Assn. "If this was a crisis, the Coast Guard would be responding differently. They haven't issued any regulations on this issue."

Platform dangers

Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say carbon monoxide poisoning fatalities began increasing in the 1970s when boats were equipped with swim platforms. Scientists estimate that three inhalations of carbon monoxide-rich air can cause death.

"When I was growing up, there were no swim platforms, just ladders on the sides of boats," said Tom McAlpine, an Alabama lawyer who represented the estate of a child who died of carbon monoxide poisoning after hanging onto the swim platform of an idling boat.

As part of a settlement, manufacturer Correct Craft began adding carbon monoxide warnings to its boats in the late '90s. The 2-by-4-inch sticker reads, in part, "Stay off and keep away from boarding platform while engine is running."

Meanwhile, the company and another major boat maker, MasterCraft, sell showering attachments that many users operate while standing on the swim platform. According to boat dealers, the engine must be running to provide a steady stream of hot water for the shower.

"One of their own designs forces people to stand in an exposure area. It doesn't make any sense," said Jane McCammon, a researcher for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Correct Craft executives and the company's chief engineer, Bill Snook, declined to answer questions regarding the shower units. A MasterCraft representative said its owners' manuals and decals warn against standing on the swim platform while the engine is running.

Weak warnings?

Boat industry critics, including physician Baron, attorney McAlpine and researchers from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, in a 2000 report, recommended removal of swim platforms, say the manufacturers' current sticker warnings are insufficient.

Studies by the Coast Guard and other government agencies show that carbon monoxide poisoning can occur inside boats, particularly in back seats.

"CO levels in the stern [back] seat of a ski boat are high enough to be cause for concern," one study reads. "CO levels at 20 feet behind the towed boat are high enough to affect towed tubers who tend to be young children."

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