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Portable generators: Standby power or standby death?

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Who monitors incidents of unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning in Nigeria? A review of medical records of patients receiving diagnosis of unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning shows Nigeria is in dire need of active surveillance for proper generator use. VF findings show that misplacement of portable, gasoline-powered generators, for instance, indoors, in garages, or outdoors near windows, is often responsible for fatal and non-fatal generator fumes exposures.

Public health practitioners are yet to come up with educational campaigns on the safe operation of portable generators and prevention of hazards of carbon monoxide poisoning in the community. Sola Ogundipe report…

RECENTLY, a new-wed couple choked to death from generator fumes in their new home on the outskirt of Calabar, Cross River State. Around the same time, in Ibadan, Oyo State, a 69-year-old man passed away along with seven other members of his family after they were overcome by fumes from a portable generator that was running on the first floor of their home. Reports indicated that the level of fumes inside the home was three times the danger limit.

Prior to this incident, in Abeokuta, Ogun State, two teenagers died from generator fumes poisoning because the generator they were using to power ceiling fans was too close to the room in which they slept. Much later, in Agege area of Lagos State, a middle aged man who was running a generator in his basement died in his sleep when the generator fumes infiltrated his bedroom.

Separate incidents

In yet another incidence somewhere on the Lagos mainland, a 30-year-old man who went to bed with his family while a generator was running in his garage, also died along with them as a result of the close proximity of the device. In Abuja, between June 2012 and March 2013,  four people died in separate incidents as a result of  poisoning from generator fumes.

Almost daily, there is one report or the other of a generator-induced death. Someone is either burned to death while refueling a generator, or electrocuted connecting an appliance to a live generator. But by far the most common reports have to do with people inhaling generator fumes and choking to death in their sleep right inside their bedrooms.

Over the years, the monumental failure of the antiquated National Electric Power Authority, NEPA, and its equally moribund descendant – the Power Holding Corporation of Nigeria, PHCN, Plc. compelled the average Nigerian to invest in portable generators to provide electrical power more on a substantive rather than standby basis. For millions who have come to learn never to expect power at all, the generator is a life-saver because it has become the mainstay of electricity provision. For most purposes, the standby generator has become the “NEPA”, while the “NEPA” is now standby.

It is on record that Nigerians have acquired more standby generators in their life time than other nationals in the world. Owning a portable gasoline generator in Nigeria today is not only essential, but the norm. Recent statistics from the Centre for Management Development reveal that an estimated 60 million Nigerians invest about N1.6 trillion to purchase and maintain standby generators annually.


The typical portable generator ranges from the cheap and lowly “I beta pass my neighbour” to the high end noiseless series. To most Nigerians, “I beta pass my neighbour” is a life saver. Affordable and cheap to maintain, there are very few homes in the city, town and even village where the robust little contraption has not found a place.

But those who know better describe it as a potential life taker. Being a 2-stroke design, “I beta pass my neighbour”  has no separate lubrication system, so it uses a petrol-engine oil mixture

Findings by VF reveal that in a typical “face-me-I-face-you” apartment building in Lagos, there is one or even two “I beta pass my neighbour” per room. In a building with 20 rooms, up to 10-15 generators could be on at the same time, emitting thick clouds of environmentally unfriendly gases for hours on end.

Standby generators

But that is not the end of the story. Nigerians are not only world champions for acquiring the highest number of standby generators, the nation holds  the gold medal for recording the highest number of generator-induced deaths.

Generator fumes comprise a lethal cocktail of poisonous and environmentally unfriendly gases, including carbon monoxide and other noxious products produced from incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon fuels notably petrol (gasoline), diesel or a mixture of petrol and engine oil.

By far the most toxic of these product gases is carbon monoxide which is virtually invisible. You cannot smell it or see it because it is odourless and colourless and becomes fatal with sustained concentrations. VF gathered the carbon monoxide produced during operation of a portable generator can be a serious health hazard. For instance, the exhaust produced by a typical 5.5 kW generator contains as much carbon monoxide as that of six idling cars. When used indoors or in close proximity to residential dwellings, this exhaust can quickly infiltrate living spaces and incapacitate occupants. Misplacement of portable generators indoors, in garages, or outdoors near windows accounted for most exposures.

In normal use, majority of portable generators placed outdoors are reportedly located near windows or window-mounted air conditioners. More often than not, portable generators are placed inside a room or the corridor/balcony inside the home or garage to protect the devices from the weather or to prevent them from being stolen. Findings reveal that majority of fatal poisonings occur overnight.

Health records provide evidence that constant exposure to emissions from generators has proved hazardous to human wellbeing affecting the lungs and causing lasting health problems such as cancer, premature birth, low weight babies and neonatal abnormalities, cerebral palsy, etc., as well as numerous deaths.

“It is a silent epidemic. Nobody hears anything, nobody feels anything. It just happens,” notes  Professor Olu Akinyanju, a  member of the World Health Organisation, WHO, Advisory Panel of the Human Genetics Programme. Akinyanju, a Physician/ Haematologist, and Founder/ Chairman, Sickle Cell Foundation of Nigeria, described the incidence as an epidemic. “It is so rampant, and the challenge is how to bring it to the attention of people,” he stated.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advises using generators at least 20 feet away from homes, since there’s not enough ventilation within garages and basements or near open windows to prevent fatal poisoning. However, some generator manufacturers recommend the use of extension cords to be “as short as possible, preferably less than 15 feet long, to prevent voltage drop and possible overheating of wires.” However, the use of short extension cords may result in placement of the generator too close to the home to reduce the likelihood of the entry of carbon monoxide. To reduce fumes entry, the generator should ideally be positioned outside of airflow recirculation region near the open windows.

“The bottom line is that the risk for carbon monoxide poisoning from generators is a major concern and public health officials should take cognisance of this fact. The only safe use of generators is outdoors, well away from any windows that could transmit fumes indoors,” an engineer told VF.

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