Prolonged exposure to odorless, colorless gas can be deadly

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is present in the exhaust produced in gasoline engines. Boats release carbon monoxide through the exhaust ports of vessels that are either idling or underway and exhaust from generator sets. When inhaled, carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in tissues.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include nausea, dizziness, confusion, headache and fainting; however, people often mistakenly attribute these symptoms to too much alcohol, sun, and noise, or to motion sickness from the water or exhaustion. Exposure to carbon monoxide in large amounts or for a long duration results in death.

Traditionally, carbon monoxide poisonings have occurred on houseboats, vessels with overhead canopies or other vessels that have poor ventilation. Carbon monoxide also accumulates onboard a vessel through a process known as the ‘station wagon effect.’ This occurs as air moves around a boat and forms a low pressure area immediately behind the broad, flat transom. Carbon monoxide from the exhaust system enters the low-pressure area and is fed back into the cockpit and into cabin.

Nationwide, there were 571 reported boating-related carbon monoxide poisonings, including 113 deaths, between 1990 and 2004. Because the carbon monoxide poisoning is only recently receiving attention, it is likely that many other deaths have been attributed to drowning or heart attack in years past may have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

There are many ways to protect your family from the dangers of carbon monoxide. Several of the different precautions a boater can take are listed below.

  • Use a Marine Carbon Monoxide Detector – These detectors work much like smoke alarms in houses. They sense a moderate level of carbon monoxide present on the vessel and emit a loud siren noise to alert the occupants of the danger.
  • Ensure Proper Ventilation – Open foredeck hatches and a window in the cabin to allow fresh air to travel through the vessel. Also, be aware that carbon monoxide can collect under a canopy.
  • Inspect Exhaust System Regularly - Look and listen for leaks in the exhaust system. Check each joint for discoloration, water leaks, carbon build-up or stains. Make sure all ventilation systems are in good repair and are not obstructed, restricted, or punctured. Seal gaps around engine room and exhaust system doors, hatches, and access panels.
  • Avoid the Transom – The transom is where carbon monoxide collects. Stay away from the transom while the vessel is idling or underway.
  • Educate Children – Instruct your children about the danger and presence of carbon monoxide on vessels.
  • Avoid Other Idling Vessels – Idling vessels are a very prominent source for high concentrations of carbon monoxide.

To learn more about the dangers of carbon monoxide, contact the KDWP Boating Education Department, 512 SE 25th Ave, Pratt, KS 67124 or call 620-672-5911.