By Nicole Brodzik
In October 2016, 7-year-old Sophia Baechler was found unresponsive in the cabin of her family’s boat in Wayzata. She died hours later. It was later revealed that Sophia experienced carbon monoxide poisoning.
Recently, a new law went into effect to stop similar instances from happening. Sophia’s Law, named for the 7-year-old girl, requires that all motorboats with designated sleeping accommodations, a galley area with a sink and a toilet compartment have a functional marine carbon monoxide detector system installed. Detectors must be located in the main cabin and in all sleeping areas and should be no less than five years old. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, those requirements must be met by May 1, 2017, for boats to be considered legally safe to operate.
“That date correlates well with the start of boating season here in Minnesota,” Lisa Dugan, DNR boat and water safety outreach coordinator, said. “The first year is mostly going to be about education. We’ll be doing a lot of face-to-face with boaters and making sure they have what they need.”
Dugan emphasized that boaters should make sure to get a marine carbon monoxide detector installed professionally, as they are the only kind that remain accurate during movement and in outdoor settings.
There is also a requirement for all motorboats with “one contiguous space surrounded by boat structure that may be occupied by a person” to have three warning stickers on the boat: one placed at the helm, one in or at the entrance to any enclosed space and one at the boarding or stem area. Stickers are available for free at Minnesota deputy registrar locations, as well as at many marinas, marine dealer and repair shops.
Vessels such as row boats, small fishing boats and pontoons are not required to have detectors or stickers. However, Dugan said that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to get carbon monoxide poisoning from boats like pontoons.
“The back of the boat is where people tend to jump off and swim,” she said. “If the motor is running, you can still have poisonings, even in open air.”
She suggested that boaters of all kinds have warning stickers near the back of their boats as a precaution. While Dugan said the DNR is willing to work with people on getting carbon monoxide detectors in place, after an initial warning, the penalty for not having proper equipment installed on a boat is a petty misdemeanor. She also said that for the most part, boaters in Minnesota have been receptive to the new law and understand the safety hazards carbon monoxide poses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisioning each year, with another 20,000 visiting the emergency rooms and more than 4,000 being hospitalized. Dugan stressed how quickly death by carbon monoxide poisoning can happen, urging all boaters and anyone near a motor engine to be cautious.
“If it’s in a high enough concentrations, one breath can be fatal,” Dugan said.
Sophia’s death resulted from a leaking exhaust pipe located underneath the mattress area she had been sleeping on in the boat’s lower cabin. Because carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, the gas is hard to recognize on its own and is the product of burning fuel, such as in vehicles, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces and furnaces. The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.
The DNR asks anyone who experiences these symptoms and suspects a carbon monoxide leak to be the issue to leave any enclosed spaces, get plenty of fresh air and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Other devices, such as low-level detectors, can help prevent problems as well. Low-level carbon monoxide detectors can help notify boat occupants of lower amounts of carbon monoxide in the air that, while are likely not fatal, can still be harmful. These are especially helpful for the very young or elderly but are not accepted as substitutes for carbon monoxide detectors and should only be used as a supplemental device.
For more information on Sophia’s Law, visit bit.ly/2sjBn4V.