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Boat exhaust can often be the silent killer in water

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By Teresa Herriman, The Courier-Herald

(This is the third part of a series of water safety articles intended to help residents have a fun and safe summer on the area's many lakes and rivers.)

This summer thousands of boaters and swimmers will be poisoned on lakes and rivers throughout the country.

Many will never even know it, attributing the sudden onset of light-headedness and headache to seasickness, the flu, food poisoning or too much alcohol.

Too often the real culprit is carbon monoxide poisoning (CO) from boat exhaust.

Symptoms of CO poisoning include irritated eyes, headache, nausea, weakness and dizziness.

The colorless, odorless gas produced by recreational boats stays close to the water, accumulating under the boat's swim platform and in enclosed cabins.

Exposure to engine exhaust can cause swimmers to faint, and if they are not wearing a life jacket, they simply slip under the water and drown.

Barry Barquest, battalion chief for East Pierce Fire and Rescue, holds a bulging file folder filled with newspaper clippings and reports of drownings in local lakes. It is unknown how many of the deaths involved people incapacitated by CO poisoning.

During tests of late-model motorboats with a properly tuned engine under light-breeze conditions, officials from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found CO levels of 200 parts per million in and around the boats. After less than a minute, the reading had climbed to 990 parts per million, enough to endanger a life.

Boats are capable of producing 8,000 parts per million, Barquest said.

"One boat will put out enough CO to equal 180 vehicles.

"What really concerns me is that so many people don't realize this danger exists," he said.

To raise awareness and help prevent a tragedy, East Pierce Fire and Rescue has initiated a public education program to distribute bumper stickers and brochures. The program is funded by a grant from the Boat United States Foundation. The $3,600 grant is part of the Safe Kids Coalition, a program developed in cooperation with Mary Bridge Children's Hospital and Health Center and the Tacoma Fire Department.

One of Barquest's primary concerns is "teak surfing." Swimmers hold onto the swim platform - typically made of teak - as the boat speeds along the water.

Some water skiiers shorten a 75-foot towrope to ski 10-15 feet in the wake behind the boat. Both practices expose participants to deadly CO emissions and increased danger of injury from the propeller.

"We generally get six to seven prop injuries a summer," Barquest said. Many more are never reported to emergency crews.

Even relaxing in the water at the back of an idling boat is dangerous.

Barquest recommends turning off the motor unless the boat is under way.

"We have a false sense of security in an open boat," warns Barquest, who pointed out the aerodynamics of a moving boat can pull CO into enclosed spaces on board.

Boaters can help reduce the risk by having their watercraft properly maintained.

Most marine supply stores carry CO detectors to install in boat cabins, helping to warn of dangerous CO levels. Devices designed to reduce CO emissions are also appearing on the market.

For more information about how to prevent carbon-monoxide poisoning on recreational boats, visit these Web sites: www.boatus.com and www.strategicsafety.com.

Teresa Herriman can be reached at therriman@courierherald.com

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