Research links carbon monoxide poisoning to push-start vehicles
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's the latest luxury offered in newer cars: push-start ignitions with a wireless key fob. But there is a hidden danger that experts say is taking lives.
The old-fashioned way, you actually have to use a key to turn the ignition off. With this new technology, you're key-free, and if you don't push the button to turn off the engine, you may not realize it's still running. In enclosed spaces, prolonged exhaust puts people at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning.
From 2009 to 2016, at least 20 deaths were blamed on carbon monoxide poisoning from keyless ignition systems, according to records from KidsandCars.org. Of those deaths, half have occurred in Florida.
News4Jax worked with the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's Hazardous Materials Team to bring you a live event on Wednesday night to show you just how quickly carbon monoxide can fill a garage to what's considered deadly levels. Firefighters also showed how that poisonous gas can seep through the walls inside your home.
For the experiment, a firefighter pulled a push start SUV into a garage. He left the vehicle running as others involved in the experiment closed the garage off. We monitored a special gas meter, which measures parts per million of carbon monoxide and oxygen.
Within about 3 minutes, the meter's alarm went off, warning us of dangerous levels of CO. Firefighters pointed out that the oxygen levels were also dropping fast. They call it a deadly combination.
"Carbon monoxide is actually replacing the breathable oxygen inside the garage," said Lt. Aaron Bebernitz, a supervisor with JFRD's Hazmat team.
It got worse. More toxic carbon monoxide filled the garage and oxygen levels dropped. Afer 30 minutes, first responders said the levels could be lethal.
"The atmosphere inside is extremely deadly," Bebernitz said. "For anyone just to walk in right now, they could potentially pass out."
The meter filled with so much of the dangerous gases, that it began to malfunction and stopped measuring levels. The alarm continued to sound.
An hour after starting the experiment, the News4Jax crew and firefighters decided to end the experiment for safety. A firefighter had to wear full protective gear, including a mask and air pack, just to enter the building and turn off the SUV.
He said the experiment proved just how deadly the gases can be, and how quickly they can accumulate.
CO claiming lives
Tim Maddock is still heartbroken after losing his girlfriend, Chastity Glisson, six years ago when she accidentally left her Lexus running in her South Florida garage. He was poisoned and nearly died.
"Nobody should have to lose a loved one," Maddock said. "It's hard to move on, you know? You can't replace that."
The problem seems to be growing. There have been 48 other carbon monoxide poisoning incidents nationwide over the past six years in which people were injured. (See list of cases that involve at least one death at bottom of this story)
Debi Forrest, a nurse and education director for the USVI Poison Center-Jacksonville, said many people don't realize they're being affected until it's too late.
"The symptoms can be as mild as flu-like symptoms," she said. "Headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness. Or as severe as coma, seizures or even death."
At the poison center, health experts are taking lots of calls from people affected by carbon monoxide. And they're worried that push-button cars, while convenient, will continue to claim lives.
"In the future I think it is going to probably get worse before it gets any better," Forrest told News4Jax. "Because more and more car manufacturers are building their cars to work this way."
You can't see or smell the toxic gases, making them more dangerous.
Capt. Christopher Lewis, with Jacksonville Fire Rescue's Hazardous Materials Team, has helped save people who forgot to turn their cars off. He's worried more families might be next.
"(Carbon monoxide) will make its way through the structure and you can go to sleep and never wake up," he said.
Consumer Reports researchers say some vehicle brands have an audible alert to let a driver know the engine is still running, but others don't.
News4Jax obtained a class-action lawsuit filed in 2015 against Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Honda, General Motors, BMW, Volkswagen, Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Kia claiming the automakers ignored the risks associated with keyless ignitions.
According to Consumer Reports, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been attempting to make the audible alert mandatory, but some automakers were against it, arguing the proposed sound level was much too loud and would be an annoyance.
There are vehicles that do have an automatic shutoff. If the car is left idling for a determined period of time, the vehicle automatically turns off. But that safety feature is not mandatory, either.
Many of the documented carbon monoxide poisonings linked to keyless ignitions occur when the driver puts the vehicle in the garage and closes the door — not realizing the engine is still running.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless deadly gas. Because you can't see, taste, or smell it, carbon monoxide can kill you before you know it's there. Carbon monoxide, known by the chemical formula "CO", is a poisonous gas that kills approximately 534 people in the United States alone every year. Of that number, about 207 people were killed by carbon monoxide emitted from a consumer product, like a stove or water heater.
What are the sources of CO?
CO is a byproduct of incomplete combustion. CO sources can include malfunctioning appliances — including furnaces, stoves, ovens and water heaters — that operate by burning fossil fuels such as natural or liquefied petroleum. When malfunctioning appliances aren't adequately ventilated, the amount of CO in the air may rise to a level that can cause illness or even death. Other CO sources include vehicle exhaust, blocked chimney flues, fuel-burning cooking appliances used for heating purposes, and charcoal grills used in the home, tent, camper, garage or other unventilated areas.
Why is carbon monoxide so dangerous?
The great danger of carbon monoxide is its attraction to hemoglobin in the bloodstream. When breathed in, it enters the bloodstream and replaces the oxygen molecules found on the critical blood component, hemoglobin, depriving the heart and brain of the oxygen necessary to function. When CO is present in the air, it rapidly accumulates in the blood, causing symptoms similar to the flu, such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizzy spells, confusion, and irritability. As levels increase, vomiting, loss of consciousness, and eventually brain damage or death can result.