The Silent Killer That Surrounds Us

On Jan. 22, 2003 NASCAR driver Rick Mast, then 45, announced that he was retiring from racing due to due to acute and chronic carbon monoxide poisoning from the race cars he occupied for over 15 years. He became the first NASCAR driver to announce that carbon monoxide was a contributing factor in his decision to retire from racing. According to an article in the New York Times, dated Feb. 2, 2003, Mast’s symptoms included being disoriented and falling ill for days at a time.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when carbon monoxide builds up in your bloodstream. When too much carbon monoxide is in the air, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This can lead to serious tissue damage or even death. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by burning gas, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel. Improperly ventilated appliances and engines, particularly in a tightly sealed or enclosed space, may allow carbon monoxide to accumulate to dangerous levels.”

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of just about everything that motorsports does. In the race cars, much progress has been made to keep the drivers safer from carbon monoxide while they race.  It was very common in the 1990s and early 2000s for carbon monoxide to be a factor in a race.

Reports from Michigan in 1991 indicated that Dale Earnhardt was ill after damage early in the race to his vehicle caused carbon monoxide to build up. In September of 1998, Ricky Rudd extended his annual Cup Series race win streak at Martinsville. At the race track Rudd collapsed in Victory Lane and it was reported at the time that it was because his cooling system failed and it was almost 100 degrees at race time. However, carbon monoxide was also an issue.

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Ward Burton had an issue in the motor coach lot prior to the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. After the race, Burton said, “It went from one end of the spectrum to the other all day. The motorhome compound is so tight here that I got a little carbon monoxide poisoning last night and that kind of played against me. I wasn’t 100 percent in the car late in the race. I hope Humpy and them will do something about that because that’s not right. We were all over the place. The generator fumes were coming up under the bus and I started to get a hell of a headache. The buses are so close together it’s like you can hardly open the doors.”

From 1999 to 2010 the Center for Disease control noted that there were 5,149 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning in non-fire circumstances. In the NASCAR world, the biggest carbon monoxide issues are not in the race cars or garage areas but in the camping and living areas, where deaths have been reported in the past. I recall an incident at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2002 when two campers died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to them trying to heat their tent with a charcoal grill during a record cold snap. As recent as 2013, a camper died when his RV had a leaky exhaust causing carbon monoxide to build up at the Talladega Superspeedway.

The author has personal experience with carbon monoxide poisoning. In 1987 his fraternity house furnace malfunctioned when it was -20 degrees. Having been trained in the US Marine Corps about the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, the fire department was called and disaster averted when local officials deemed the house unsuitable for living quarters until the furnace was fixed.

As the NASCAR season is underway and the weather has been somewhat unpredictable up and down the east coast, generator safety is paramount. Generators are a source of electricity for RV’s, travel trailers, pop-up campers and tent campers. One thing I’ve personally witnessed is the varieties of ways generator owners try to protect their investment in a generator. They will build wooden boxes with covers but those don’t necessarily consider the proper and safe operation of the generator.

One product that any generator owner should consider is the GenTent (http://www.gentent.com/).

“Regardless of the numerous published warnings, consumers continue to operate portable generators in unsafe manners which prove to result in serious injuries and deaths every year,” said Mark Carpenter, CEO, Founder, GenTent Safety Canopies. “GenTent’s Top 10 Portable Generator Safety Tips list is a playbook for the proper use of portable generators and it enables owners to experience safe generator use year round.”

The folks from GenTent have created a product that allows generators to be operated safely in any kind of weather. More importantly, it allows the ventilation of carbon monoxide outside the tented area. The website is a plethora of information regarding safely operating a generator.

As people load up their campers and head to the track, it’s important to remind everyone that carbon monoxide is an odorless gas and can kill in minutes. Take a few moments to check over your generator and correct any issues with its operation. It could mean the difference between life and death.

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