Powell killer gas escaped all notice
By Judd Slivka
The Arizona Republic
November 30, 2000

No one linked a string of five deaths and 67 serious injuries on Lake Powell's waters to deadly carbon monoxide gas coming from houseboat generators accumulating beneath the rear swim deck. Until a report released Wednesday, no one had linked them anywhere.

Why?

Because no one was keeping track.

Not the Coast Guard, which is responsible for tracking the number of boating accidents and fatalities on the nation's waterways. Not the National Park Service, which administers Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which surrounds Lake Powell in northern Arizona and southern Utah.

A tangle of regulations, administrative definitions and jurisdictions conspired to keep the information from being put together by researchers.

"We were not aware of this rash of accidents and fatalities," said Randolph Jay Doubt, a Coast Guard engineer working to correct the buildup problem. "Nationwide, we show almost nothing. It turns out the states have been reporting these as swimming accidents."

The Arizona Republic reported Wednesday that a total of 102 serious injuries and nine deaths on Lake Powell were connected to carbon monoxide.

Two-thirds were due to the odorless, colorless gas collecting under the swim deck.

The numbers came from an independent study that focused on houseboats with generators that vent aft, rather than to the side.

The Coast Guard collects boating safety figures from across the country. But the service's definition of "boating accidents" doesn't include drowning if the boat's not in motion.

An accident is not reported to the Coast Guard if "a person drowns while swimming from a vessel for pleasure and the vessel does not contribute to the drowning; it is a platform only," according to Coast Guard regulations. Since the study, by Jane McCammon of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was the only one to show a link between swimming accidents and carbon monoxide fumes coming from houseboats, the service wasn't interested in keeping track.

No one else was, either.

"I wish someone were keeping track of drowning data," said McCammon, a Denver public-health expert who studied the Lake Powell fatalities along with a Phoenix emergency room doctor. "I'd do it for the rest of my life if they asked. That's how important I think it is."

Complicating matters is the Coast Guard's reporting form, distributed to the states. It is a detailed, three-page form that covers everything from weather at the time of the incident to what a boat's hull is made out of. It is geared toward reporting collisions and sinkings, however, rather than drownings.

States can collect the data on their own, the Coast Guard said. But mostly, they don't. And even when they do, the Coast Guard reports make it difficult to pass along that data.

"They're working on improving the form," said Skip Moyer, president of the American Boat and Yacht Council, a non-profit group that makes safety recommendations to the boating industry. "It's a little like the Florida election in that each state has its own way of doing things, and sometimes the data that gets to Washington isn't the data that gets sent."

Compounding the problem are jurisdictional issues. At Lake Cumberland, Ky., which might have more houseboats and houseboat manufacturers than any other body of water in America, eight counties can respond to drownings.

That's eight separate levels of detail in reports from emergency-service personnel, and eight separate coroners to decide whether drowning victims need an autopsy.

Researchers in the Lake Powell study were lucky, McCammon said. Only one emergency service handles medical problems on the lake. And her co-researcher, Good Samaritan Hospital emergency room doctor Robert Baron is Glen Canyon National Recreation Area's chief medical officer.

Even so, the two ran into problems.

"It's difficult to know the circumstances of death sometimes," McCammon said. "A lot of EMS records are incomplete. They don't always say if the generator was on, or what the victims looked like.

"Often, the symptoms are confused with alcohol. There's really no way to tell for sure unless a test for carbon monoxide is run."

That's what happened to Chris Martin, a Western Kentucky University student who drowned at Lake Cumberland in August. His friends last saw him sitting on the back of the houseboat they were spending the day on.

"The coroner didn't do an autopsy," said Martin's mother, Bonita. "They just assumed since it was a bunch of college kids on a houseboat that he got drunk, fell out of the boat and drowned."

When she found out that the Park Service had issued an alert about carbon monoxide buildup, she asked the county coroner to perform an autopsy and look for carbon monoxide.

The coroner laughed.

Eventually, he did the autopsy. The results have been equivocal. The county coroner said carbon monoxide readings in Chris Martin's blood were normal; other experts Martin consulted told her the level was high.

"I'm still fighting here," she said. "I'm still trying to get them to believe."

 

    Copyright 2000, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. This article graciously provided courtesy of The Arizona Republic.