Cat Back: Federal Investigation into Ford Explorer a Reminder of Progress with Carbon-Monoxide Reduction

2015 Ford Explorer SportWith the renewed attention paid to tailpipe emissions over the past year—due in no small part to Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal—it seems a natural extension to be a little concerned about the emissions inside your vehicle’s cabin.

Breathe a sigh of relief, VW—modern diesel engines typically have lower carbon-monoxide (CO) levels than comparable gasoline models. But on the gasoline side, some Ford Explorer models from the 2011 through 2015 model years—638,612 vehicles—face a potential cabin-emissions choke point. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) earlier this month opened an investigation on the matter, after identifying 154 complaints reporting engine exhaust odors in the cabin. Although no government agency or research group has verified CO as cabin issue in the Explorer, some raised concern about it, the federal agency reported.

CO is one of the many components of normal vehicle tailpipe emissions. It’s colorless and odorless, but it can cause headaches, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, and confusion, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it can worsen symptoms of heart disease or breathing problems. Elevated levels can also affect driving ability, and the CDC notes that for those who are sleeping or drunk, death can be the first (and only) symptom of CO poisoning.

Yes, That ’70s Thing

CO used to be a much more dire public-health threat. Between unintentional poisoning from exhaust leaks and engine-bay fumes, and the suicides that these high-CO vehicles helped enable, there were thousands of CO poisoning deaths per year in cars in the 1960s and into the ’70s.

But beginning in 1975 there was a steep decline in the number of accidental motor-vehicle-related CO deaths in the U.S., and that can be credited to a single thing: the catalytic converter.

Back in 1970, with the Clean Air Act, the federal government set a 34-gram-per-mile CO standard. That was tightened to 15 g/mile in 1975 and 3.4 g/mile for 1981. An idle carbon-monoxide test was once part of EPA certification, and “flow-through” and always-on ventilation systems helped reduce risk in the cabin.

The authors of a 2002 American Medical Association paper investigating the effect of CO policies and practices on mortality estimated that 11,667 unintentional vehicle-related poisoning deaths were averted from 1975 to that date.

Meanwhile, carbon-monoxide detectors have become the norm in houses, schools, and hotels. For houses, 26 states have statutes requiring them (some, sensibly, only if there are fuel-burning devices present), while 11 others use residential/building codes to enforce it.

Cause for Concern in the Car?

There is no such common standard for keeping track of carbon-monoxide levels in vehicle cabins, and at least several accidental CO deaths in recent years have occurred due to tailpipes covered in snow or to riding in closed pickup toppers. And the chances of having elevated CO levels in your cabin go up with vehicle age. That 2002 paper cautioned: “Carbon-monoxide-related deaths can and do occur with newer vehicle models as the effectiveness of the catalytic converter decreases over its useful life, in oxygen-depleted environments.”

We will cooperate with NHTSA on this investigation, as we always do.

In the Explorer’s case, there’s been one low-speed crash allegedly associated with the issue, although no (lasting) injuries have been reported to the federal agency. The complaints, some made as recently as last month, point to exhaust fumes during full-throttle applications like highway merges or climbing steep grades, and using the air-conditioning system in its recirculation mode.

Elizabeth Weigandt, a Ford spokesperson, wouldn’t reveal any further details about the issue or its potential remedies, but released the following company statement: “We will cooperate with NHTSA on this investigation, as we always do.”

An agency spokesperson replied with some advice: “EPA has no authority to regulate ventilation systems in cars. However we would suggest: 1) take the vehicle to a dealer, and 2) buy a home CO detector and stick it in the car.”

Installing a fairly large home appliance inside your vehicle may seem a level of alarmism akin to wearing a tin-foil hat. But in a quick scan of major online retailers, there are indeed a few CO-detector models specially designed for the car; you may want to check those out should you own one of these Explorers.

from Car and Driver Blog

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