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Carbon monoxide poses greater and greater risks

Few deaths inspire more sympathy than the insidious, highly preventable kinds that quietly took the lives of a Passaic mother and her two young children last January as they tried to stay warm inside a parked car while its engine kept running. Tragically, snow clogged the tailpipe as Sashalynn Rosa’s husband shoveled snow around them. In time, poisonous carbon monoxide leaked into the car, and the 23-year-old mom, her daughter Saniyah, 3, and son, Messiah, 1, all drifted off to sleep and perished. Within hours, thousands of dollars was contributed to a website for a funeral, and with winter approaching this week, Governor Christie has signed a bill requiring the Motor Vehicle Commission to emphasize carbon monoxide dangers in its driver testing and training literature. But driver-safety advocates like Janette Fennel expressed only limited praise for this effort. “Anything to raise awareness of a lethal danger like this is a positive step,” said Fennel, the founder of a Philadelphia-based road-safety group called Kids & Cars. “But how do you train someone not to forget to turn off the ignition in a car.” Fennel knows better than most about the human frailties of ignorance and forgetfulness that contribute to the deadly vehicular toll exacted by carbon monoxide poisoning. Research by Kids & Cars ( shows blocked tailpipes have caused 30 deaths and 15 serious illnesses — about 80 percent of them since 2000. But Fennel’s group is focusing its efforts on a much newer phenomenon that has taken 20 lives and caused 45 serious illnesses since it was introduced in 2003 — push-button keyless ignition.
Under this technology, car keys have become nearly obsolete because nearly all cars are made with engines that start and shut off simply by pushing a button. “Engines today run so quietly that it’s easy to forget that vehicles are still running when you leave it in garages,” Fennel noted. Colorless, odorless, tasteless carbon-monoxide fumes can silently leave the garage and reach other rooms of a house or apartment building. When breathed in, they replace oxygen in a body’s essential red blood cells. The harm they cause can lead to permanent tissue damage, long-term debilitation and death, as it did for a New York couple in 2009, a North Carolina college professor in 2012 and a Florida grandmother last year. New Jersey has seen its share of carbon-monoxide deaths, including two others in a car in Hackensack last March. In three separate incidents back in February 2003, three men died in Paterson under similar circumstances. Faulty or clogged tailpipes were blamed, but none of these incidents involved keyless ignitions.


Prevention tips from Baltimore's Mayo Clinic

• Install carbon monoxide detectors near all sleeping areas and check batteries twice a year.
 • Always open the garage door when starting the car and never leave it running.
 • Never use a gas stove or oven to heat your home and never run a generator in the basement or garage.
 • Keep all fuel-burning appliances and engines properly vented.


Readers angry

Nevertheless it’s a danger that incenses Road Warrior readers. “A simple electronic switch should be able to shut down the engine,” wrote River Vale’s Norman Wattman. “My Ford Fusion lets me know [the car is running] with two horn beeps and flashing lights,” noted Brian Gunther, an Ocean County mechanic. “Why can’t other car manufacturers do the same?” Actually, most modern cars are equipped with audible devices to warn drivers when they forget to push the off-button, but they fall short of the 85-decibel level recommended by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As some readers have noted, many of the victims have been elderly retirees with impaired hearing. “If you’ve been driving 40 or 50 years, it’s hard to change an old routine,” said Fennel. “But even if a driver’s hearing is pretty good, people of all ages can’t always hear the warnings over the noise of the automatic garage door rolling down.” Do drivers pay much attention to their car’s warnings? As one Upper Saddle River reader noted, ignition warning tones are so much a part of modern beeps, rings and chirps in cars and phones that “we tend to ignore them.” At 85 decibels, roughly the sound level of a piercing smoke alarm, the NHTSA recommendation would probably suffice. But at least one carmaker — Nissan — believes 85 decibels is “too loud and may interfere with the driver responding to the alert.” NHTSA declared in December 2011 that keyless vehicles were “a clear safety problem” that could be fixed with a relatively cheap $500 million industry investment. But carmakers, already besieged by lawsuits involving air bags and brakes, have pushed back. The short-staffed federal agency missed its self-imposed February deadline for introducing new keyless-ignition rules.


What can be done?

One recommendation it was considering would automatically shut off the engine soon after a driver leaves the car upon pocketing its electronic controller or fob. But one question seemed to stymie regulators: How soon? Does it take half an hour for deadly carbon monoxide to fill up a home or apartment building? An hour? Maybe 10 minutes? Whatever the answer is, NHTSA’s ruling will likely affect only new vehicles because, unlike recalled equipment, current ignition systems aren’t generally considered faulty or defective. Meanwhile, class-action lawsuits continue to slowly make their way through courts in states from Florida to California. Citing 13 deaths, one Golden State suit is seeking an injunction ordering 10 manufacturers of keyless vehicles to install automatic engine shut-offs. Although keyless ignitions have not figured in any New Jersey fatalities, examples of carbon-monoxide poisonings occur with some frequency. Besides the Passaic and Hackensack deaths this year, a boy was killed in his Linden home in May and two people were killed and 12 others hospitalized in December 2014 when a Passaic building was consumed with carbon monoxide fumes. Similar fumes in a Garfield home sent four people to the hospital on Christmas Day 2014. A week later, four workers were hospitalized when felled by carbon monoxide in a Paterson dry-cleaning store. About 150 people were evacuated from their senior-citizen complex in Pequannock in 2013 when it was consumed with the deadly gas. Faulty equipment such as heaters, ventilators or generators were blamed in these incidents. Doctors recommend that victims quickly seek fresh air and medical attention when stricken. Sadly, few patients reach emergency rooms, said Dr. John LoCurto, who heads emergency services at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Too often they’re dead before they get here,” LoCurto explained.
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