Deaths of Parker boys inspire houseboat study; doctor finds design contributes to buildup of carbon monoxide
By Scott Thomsen
The Denver Rocky Mountain News
December 23, 2000

Phoenix - Brothers Logan and Dillon Dixey of Parker had been swimming under and around their family's houseboat when 8-year-old Logan lost consciousness and 11-year-old Dillon went into convulsions. Both sank below the surface and died.

For Dr. Robert Baron, whose concerns about carbon monoxide poisoning around houseboats had been growing for six years, the boys' deaths at Lake Powell from the odorless, colorless gas were too much.

"When the Dixeys died, I said, 'I don't care if this is the only lake in the world where this is happening, we've got to stop it,'" said Baron, medical director at the Glen Canyon Recreation Area on the Arizona-Utah border, which includes Lake Powell.

Baron stepped up his push for a scientific study of carbon monoxide from houseboats. The findings suggest it is a growing problem, especially for houseboats using a popular hull design with a rear exhaust for gasoline-powered electric generators.

At least nine people have died and 102 have been sickened by carbon monoxide at Lake Powell in the past decade, Baron found. Of the deaths, seven involved houseboats, all built with the rear exhaust design. The other two involved pleasure boats.

The findings grabbed the industry's attention, said Lyn Turpin, vice president and chief financial officer for Sumerset Custom House Boats in Somerset, KY.

"We need to do everything we can within the design constraints of the boat to make it safer," Turpin said.

Baron's study, which included researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Park Service, found that the hull and swimming platform at the back of many houseboats traps high levels of carbon monoxide created by the generators.

Exposure to carbon monoxide can cause headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, and death. At the concentrations the researchers measured under the swimming platforms, it can take only a few breaths to knock people unconscious or kill them, said Baron, a Phoenix emergency room physician.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta cited the findings in calling for a redesign of the boats to reduce the exhaust hazard. And NIOSH released test results from boats at Lake Cumberland in Kentucky showing similar carbon monoxide buildups.

On Lake Cumberland last August, Jon Kingma and 14 relatives and friends were hospitalized for about a day after being overcome by carbon monoxide on two rented houseboats.

"We had noticed it (the exhaust) and commented to ourselves", said Kingma, of Kalamazoo, Mich. "But that was the farthest thing from our minds".

In June, four people died from exposure to the gas in a houseboat in Missouri. The same month, carbon monoxide killed a 61-year-old woman who was cleaning algae from the back of a houseboat in Tennessee.

Sgt. Paul Kennedy of the Missouri State Water Patrol said he is surprised his agency hasn't seen more fatalities.

"You come around the corner and you can see just clouds of exhaust. It's like Los Angeles on a smoggy day," he said of an area called Party Cove on Lake of the Ozarks.

National statistics on boating accidents and fatalities are complied by the U.S. Coast Guard but give little insight into the scope of carbon monoxide poisonings.

"This whole phenomena is new to us," said Randolph Doubt, Coast Guard civilian engineer. "We were caught unawares."