Marie's Story

Carbon monoxide exposure in a civilian Ford Explorer

Marie's Story by Cheryl Stetter

Marie's Story by Cheryl Stetter

Summer of 2017 Officer Zachary LaHood of the Austin Police Department filed a lawsuit against Ford.  Earlier that year, Zachary LaHood was exposed to carbon monoxide while on the job that caused him to pass out in his Ford Explorer and almost hit a bus.  He sued Ford alleging they knew about the potential carbon monoxide leak in Ford vehicles before 2017, but failed to issue a recall.

Although some police Interceptors and Explorers have been pulled from use, no recall for civilian model Ford Explorers has been made.

So why would Zachary LaHood think that a trusted car manufacturer knew about the potential carbon monoxide leaks and are civilian Ford Explorer’s part of this issue? 

Ford first responded to complaints of exhaust odor in 2012 with a TSB or Technical Service Bulletin, which outlined how Ford dealerships and mechanics could fix issues with exhaust odor. Software changes to the HVAC system were added in a 2014 TSB, which very clearly describes steps for inspection and repair.

Procedure 1 is a step by step guide for inspecting the function and installation of parts, sealing certain openings and seams, and testing for potential exhaust leaks into the cabin.

Procedure 2 is recommended for vehicles with a specific type of engine, and if the customer is returning the vehicle with continued complaints of exhaust odor after Procedure 1 was completed.

In procedure 2 a picture is shown of an exhaust pipe that appears to exhaust from the bottom of the pipe. Procedure 2 then advises to, "Inform the customer of the redesigned exhaust tips and that appearance will remain the same but the exhaust will exit the tip from bottom."

TSB 16-0166, Procedure 2

TSB 16-0166, Procedure 2

In both Procedure 1 and 2 of the 2014 TSB, Carbon monoxide is not mentioned.  Carbon monoxide (CO), an odorless deadly gas is a by-product of combustion engines and is present in car exhaust.

In regards to the police vehicles, A Ford spokesman asserted in the Chicago Tribune that the exhaust leaks resulted from police modifications, and that no elevated levels of CO had been found in civilian model vehicles.

There is a gap in this discussion between car exhaust and the presence of carbon monoxide. Ford's 2014 TSB shows that Ford has been making successful repairs, yet they are still wary to use the words carbon monoxide. Marie's story and complaints from the NHTSA website show the complexity of this issue and the physical, mental, and financial stress surrounding carbon monoxide exposure.

"Ford has not found elevated CO levels in civilian-model Explorer SUVs" August 4, 2017

February 2015:
Purchases a Ford Explorer

3 years after the 2012 TSB is issued by Ford

Marie never noticed a foul smell in her Ford Explorer, rather she noticed the odd feeling the car gave her. Marie was poisoned by carbon monoxide that leaked into her car beginning in 2015.  For three years, Marie suffered various afflictions, that no one could diagnose, treat, or understand. 

Marie began noticing that something was not quite right after owning her new car for six months. She experienced light-headedness, fatigue, headache, and flu-like symptoms but with no fever; symptoms that when mentioned to her family doctor, were shrugged off as hormonal.

Some afflictions were not as easy to explain. Marie described a rash in our interview as “a rash that went from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head”, which was diagnosed as Chronic Idiopathic Urticaria, a chronic rash or hives with no known cause.

2016: Marie has blood-work done

diagnosis: Lupus

Marie went in for lab tests in 2016 about one year after purchasing her Ford Explorer.  Her results showed elevated white blood cell counts suggesting her body was fighting a possible infection.  Elevated ANA or Antinuclear antibodies suggested the possibility of an autoimmune disease.  As a result, Marie received a diagnosis of Lupus. 

A test for COHb or carboxyhemoglobin, which indicates the bodies level of carbon monoxide, was never done.  This test is only done if requested.

Relieved to have finally received a diagnosis, Marie was able to attribute her continuing health complications to Lupus. 

Her initial relief was short-lived, and Marie's symptoms persisted.  The rash was thought to be scabies, for which she received treatment 5 times, yet the rash persisted. 

The range of neurological symptoms expanded as well.  She describes a sense of mania as if she could not control her speech, daily fatigue followed by insomnia at night, and shivering in the middle of the summer and driving around with the heat on. She also experienced periods of depression and anxiety, and changes in her sense of smell and taste.  She describes her nails turning purple, at one point!

At high levels carbon monoxide can be lethal within minutes.  At low levels, however, carbon monoxide builds up in the body, and it is over time that its effects are more greatly felt. 

This is evident in a weekend road trip Marie took a year and half after her symptoms were first noticed.  She and her family drove to a wedding and on the way Marie's behavior was unusual.  Her family told her that she was slurring her words and that they could not understand anything she was saying.  Marie describes feeling like she had the flu, and at one point passes out in the car. When they arrive at their destination, Marie continued to vomit the rest of the day. 

Her family, having spent less time in the car were breathing the same polluted air; however, they had not been exposed to carbon monoxide for as long as Marie had.  Carbon monoxide competes with oxygen within cells and at low levels slowly deprives the body of oxygen.

November 2017: Marie receives a letter

Close to three years after purchasing her Ford Explorer and living with unexplained illnesses, Marie received a letter in the mail.  As an owner of a 2015 Ford Explorer, she was invited by a local lawyer to participate in a class-action lawsuit for exhaust odor entering car cabins.  One can imagine the flood of emotions from relief, panic, to anger; however, Marie quickly learned that carbon monoxide poisoning is not the easiest physical or legal battle to fight.

When Marie returned to her doctor with the news that she may have been poisoned by carbon monoxide, her doctor had little insight to provide.  She had no previous experience with carbon monoxide poisoning, nor could she refer Marie to a doctor that could help her. 

Again, Marie had a blood test and this time the elevated levels of COHb were detected. Her level of .12 was well above the .02-.09 range typically found.

In cases of high exposure to carbon monoxide, oxygen treatments and hyperbaric oxygen therapy are current treatment methods; however, these treatments are contested by CO experts.

Marie was given no insight from the medical community into how to treat carbon monoxide poisoning, but was instead encouraged to continue her treatment with the drug Xolair for her ever recurring rash.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Ford for the 2011 –2015 Ford explorers.  Sanchez-Knutson vs. Ford Motor Company is a pending case begun in 2014, which alleged that the Ford Explorer exhaust or HVAC system was faulty and allowed exhaust odor, including carbon monoxide to enter the car cabin.

One outcome of this case is Ford's customer satisfaction program that seeks to repair cars with exhaust odors, or to provide reimbursement for repairs.

Marie did not have any issues returning her vehicle to the local Ford dealership; but this time she came armed with a low-level CO monitor with a digital readout.  Marie discovered two vehicles provided quickly displayed 14 to 15 ppm of CO, eliciting a new discussion of exactly how much carbon monoxide we are regularly exposed to and what this limit should be in cars?

35 ppm average for 1 hour, and 9 ppm average for 8 hours. Not to be exceeded more than once per year (EPA National Ambient Air Quality Standard for carbon monoxide

After examining complaints from the NHTSA website using the keyword carbon monoxide and the date 2012, this discussion becomes even more important. While some share the negative effects of CO exposure, others are more positive and report successful vehicle repairs.  

Some owners of Ford Explorers discuss instances of headache, dizziness, and vomiting that were initially unexplained.  Some describe children getting sick on long trips, while another describes passing out and crashing.

One individual exposed to similar levels as Marie, stated that after an initial repair by the Ford dealership the car continued to read 45 ppm of carbon monoxide. 

This is not the case in every complaint listed.  Some individuals report that their vehicles were successfully repaired, and they had a positive experience with Ford dealerships.  In some cases, the complaints are financial, stating that successful repairs were made but at their own expense.

Marie's Ford Explorer was repaired in February and again in July of 2018 by Ford mechanics. A screen-shot from a video taken inside her Explorer on September 13, 2018 shows that the repairs were not completed successfully.

Marie, like many others, still owns her Explorer and continues to pay for her vehicle. 

Complaints from the NHTSA website show that while some people are receiving successful repairs, others like Marie are not.

I first learned of Marie’s story when she was searching for information about her severe rash.  I later learned that carbon monoxide poisoning may cause red rashes called erythema and necrotic skin lesions thought to be the result of a lack of oxygen to the skin. This same type of rash is found on people’s bodies who have died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Some CO experts consider red colored rashes to be a visible sign of CO trapped in skin, challenging the conventional wisdom that CO is invisible.

Marie’s health has gradually improved over the past year; however, she has been left with an extreme sensitivity to carbon monoxide.

Walking through a parking lot with idling cars my Pocket CO will read 5 ppm of CO, a level many of us never notice! Carbon monoxide poisoning survivors report that exposure to levels as low as 5 ppm can create a physical response including respiratory distress, loss of balance, and headaches.

She will be forever grateful to Albert Donnay, a consulting toxicologist, for his wealth of knowledge regarding carbon monoxide toxicity.  Through web-searching Marie and her family found Donnay Detoxicology and the support he has provided has been life-changing. Through Donnay Detoxicology she has found a path to health that focuses on lowering the level of CO that remains in her tissues without medication.

Marie’s husband Mark has also been affected by her experience.  He has become active in carbon monoxide advocacy and hopes to bring attention to the lack of awareness to low-level carbon monoxide poisoning within the medical community. 

It is important to note that carbon monoxide dangers can occur in all makes and models of cars. Ford has been receiving attention at the moment, but CO dangers in cars have been well-known since the use of the combustion engine.

Ford clearly understands the carbon monoxide danger within cars; however, the public including car repair technicians may not.

Note from Mark and Marie

Driving a car by Ford makes you look at vehicles differently. How safe are we in these products that we have trusted unconditionally for years?  We want to tell everyone driving these vehicles to get a CO monitor to protect themselves.

As good Samaritans we stopped to speak with two police officers parked on the side of the road about the CO issues in their Ford explorers. We asked if they had any way to monitor CO and they indicated they did not.

These officers were well versed on the repairs and the issues. They said the tailpipes were replaced and retro-fitted with a model that turned down. I did not question it initially but it was the first thing I noticed on one of the vehicles. The tailpipes on the cruisers were missing the chrome fitting and had a standard look. Now I know why the exhaust was redirected down. I am not aware if this repair is offered on civilian models, but I have heard that it is expensive and based on the number of effected vehicles may be the reason for not regularly offering this repair.

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