The summer safety hazard that could be fatal: What to know about open-air carbon monoxide poisoning

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Summer presents a unique set of safety hazards that can impact the wellbeing of our friends and families. While sun protection, recognizing the signs and symptoms of heatstroke and safety measures to prevent drowning are popular topics at the start of the season, there are lesser known health hazards that can have devastating consequences. One safety issue that families should be aware of this summer is open-air carbon monoxide poisoning.

On June 6, 2020, 9-year-old Andrew Brady Free died of open-air carbon monoxide poisoning after spending the day with his family on their boat in Lake Eufaula, Okla. Free and his parents, along with his two brothers and a family friend had been enjoying an afternoon of wakeboarding and tubing on the family’s Malibu Skier.

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Towards the end of the day, Andrew and his brothers, 13-year-old Jonathan and 15-year-old Blake began to complain that they weren’t feeling well. In an interview with TODAY, Andrew’s mother, Cassandra, recalled her youngest son “crawled onto the back of the boat and curled up in a ball” as the family began to dock their boat.

“We were packing and cleaning up and the kids are groaning that they don’t feel good, just want to take a nap,” said Free. “My husband got Blake, my middle son, up. When he tried to get Andy, the boat just rocked and Andy rolled off. My husband, he was like, 'What the heck?’”

Andrew, who had been a strong swimmer, didn’t move or attempt to swim as he fell. Free’s husband, Brett, and their family friend immediately jumped into the water to save him.

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“They were able to recover him but he never breathed another breath,” Free said. “They did CPR forever, it seemed, before emergency services came. The doctors said there is zero brain activity. Even if they got a single breath, there would have been no quality of life.”

Tests later revealed that Free’s eldest sons had developed acute carbon monoxide poisoning. Doctors advised Free that Andrew’s levels were so high, by the time he fell into the water he was “already gone.”

Open air carbon monoxide poisoning and boats

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), open air carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when gasoline powered boats (as well as onboard generators) vent the odourless, colourless gas towards the back of the boat.

Idling or travelling at slow speeds can cause a buildup of carbon monoxide, which can become dangerous especially on boats with rear vented exhaust systems. These types of boats cause a buildup of carbon monoxide near the swim platform where passengers may gather or play near the boat.

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Failing to perform regular boat maintenance or overloading your boat can also result in blockages that can cause buildups in your cabin or cockpit. Enclosed boats should have a carbon monoxide detector installed, since boats with multiple fuel sources (like houseboats) have more opportunities for blockages.

Houseboats pose unique risks for carbon monoxide poisoning (Image via Getty Images).
Houseboats pose unique risks for carbon monoxide poisoning (Image via Getty Images).

Signs and symptoms

The CDC reports that early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.

According to the Mayo Clinic, children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions and seniors are at an increased risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. The symptoms of carbon monoxide can be subtle, but could be signs of a medical emergency.

If you suspect someone may be experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, move them to fresh air and seek emergency medical attention.

How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning on boats

To help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning while boating, the CDC recommends swimming and playing away from areas where engines vent their exhaust. Tubing or wakeboarding should be done at a safe distance (approximately 100 feet) and avoiding anchoring within 20 ft of an idling boat can help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from occurring.

Educating all passengers on the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and carefully watching all children at the rear of the boat is important for keeping everyone safe.

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