Gas-powered boat engines produce carbon monoxide, or CO, a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that can prove fatal to humans. People exposed to high concentrations of CO over a short period of time can die from that exposure, as can people exposed to lower concentrations of CO over a longer period of time.
No one gets on a boat expecting to be poisoned by CO. But CO can build up on a boat rather quickly, and because it has no color, odor or taste, boaters and their passengers may be inhaling CO without knowing it. To protect themselves from CO poisoning, those who plan to go boating should learn to recognize the symptoms of CO exposure and react to their presence as quickly as possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common symptoms of CO exposure and poisoning include: headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.
Many of the symptoms of CO poisoning are also indicative of seasickness, so boaters and their passengers exhibiting any of the aforementioned symptoms should consider that they might be suffering from seasickness, which is not nearly as risky to a person’s overall health as CO poisoning.
In addition to learning about CO, boat owners should take steps to prevent CO poisoning on their boats. At the onset of each boating season and before each trip, inspect your boat’s CO detector to make sure it is working properly. When it is, the detector will alert boat owners and their passengers to elevated levels of CO in the cabin. Boat owners should keep a brand new backup detector on their boat so they won’t have to cancel a trip should they arrive at their boat only to find out their existing detector is not functioning properly.
In addition to installing and maintaining your CO detector, the CDC recommends the following preventive measures to reduce you and your passengers’ risk of CO poisoning.
- Swim and play away from areas where engines vent their exhaust.
- Keep a watchful eye on children when they play on rear swim decks or water platforms.
- Do not block exhaust outlets. When such outlets are blocked, CO can build up in the cabin and the cockpit.
- Do not dock or anchor within 20 feet of another boat that is running an engine or generator
because exhaust from nearby vessels can send CO into the boat’s cabin or cockpit.
Preventing CO exposure and poisoning also involves teaching passengers to recognize its symptoms. It’s easy for boaters to get distracted when hosting passengers on their boats, so make sure passengers know how to recognize potential CO issues. Keep a list of exposure symptoms in an accessible common area on your boat so passengers can familiarize themselves and recognize any potential problems that might arise.
A case of CO poisoning can quickly turn a relaxing day on the boat into an emergency situation. Boat owners owe it to themselves and their passengers to take preventive measures to ensure no one is exposed to or poisoned by CO while out on the water.