Discover the Dangers of Open-Air Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

By Tracy Wright
Open-Air Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Imagine the perfect day on the water – enjoying the sunshine, playing with water toys and swimming in the ocean or bay. However, for some families, a day like this can turn deadly in the most invisible and unexpected way. In a heartbreaking and now viral post shared this past August on Facebook, a mom shared her worst nightmare – her nine-year-old son passed away after a day of boating from open-air carbon monoxide poisoning.

“I didn’t know this. No one I know knew this,” the mom confesses.

According to the United States Coast Guard, carbon monoxide poisoning is the fifth leading cause of deaths among boaters and has killed more than 140 people in the last 15 years. And it doesn’t have to just happen on a boat. Instances have also occurred with people on recreational vehicles or breathing in sustained air from a charcoal grill or wood-burning fire.

Typically, on a boat, carbon monoxide develops when their generators vent toward the back of the boat where the swim deck is located. If people swim or play toward the back of the boat as it’s running, the extremely dangerous carbon monoxide can turn deadly. Unfortunately, signs of poisoning can mimic what may occur after a long day of boating—fatigue, dizziness or nausea—all sure signs of heat stroke or exhaustion.

If you notice any of these symptoms in your child or other boat passenger (especially someone who has been sitting, playing or swimming in the rear of the boat) get them into fresh air immediately and seek emergency medical assistance, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unfortunately, carbon monoxide cannot be seen or identified, which makes it the “silent killer.” In homes, CO detectors can be purchased to monitor levels in the air. For open air, it makes it more difficult to screen.

How can this tragedy be prevented? The CDC recommends to “properly install and maintain fuel burning engines and appliances.” Education is key as well—make sure your boat passengers are properly informed on ways to prevent CO poisoning and how to identify the signs of it. Never block exhaust outlets which can cause CO buildup inside and outside the boat. Don’t ever swim or play near any engine or generator while they are running, the CDC reports.

Avoid docking or anchoring near boats running their engines—park at least 20 feet away. And once you anchor the boat, wait at least 15 minutes before swimming or playing near the engine. Finally, if you are idling in long “wake” zones, avoid sitting near the rear of the boat.

All CO poisonings are preventable, said the Waterways and National Marine Manufacturers Association. The association encourages boat owners to have key parts of their annual maintenance performed by a qualified marine technician. This includes swapping out any exhaust hoses if you see any cracks or damages. Ensure cooling systems are working properly and examine each exhaust part for “cracking, rusting, leaking or loosening.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all boat owners and passengers to know the signs of CO poisoning. Seek medical treatment immediately if you find any of these signs:

  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness or loss of consciousness
  • Nausea

For more resources and information about open air carbon monoxide poisoning visit


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