Regulators ratchet up probe of exhaust complaints

Federal regulators ratchet up probe of Ford Explorer exhaust complaints

Published September 30, 2017 12:59PM (EDT)

 (AP/Damian Dovarganes)
(AP/Damian Dovarganes)

This article originally appeared on FairWarning.

Over the last five years, auto safety regulators have received hundreds of complaints of exhaust fumes and carbon monoxide wafting into the cabins of Ford Explorers.

Investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who began looking into the issue only last year, say they’ve uncovered no medical evidence that motorists have been exposed to elevated levels of the odorless and poisonous gas.

However, the federal regulators haven’t yet seen Steve Simmons’ medical records.

In August, less than two weeks after the Raleigh, N.C., resident bought a 2015 Explorer and began feeling ill, blood tests said that he had carbon monoxide poisoning. “I could feel that something wasn’t right,” he said. “I started feeling lousy. The symptoms were headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, blurred vision.”

Duke Raleigh Hospital said Simmons, 62, had a carbon monoxide level in his blood of 4.6 percent–a high level for a non-smoker like him. “Elevated carbon monoxide above 2 percent in non-smokers strongly supports this diagnosis, which is consistent with lab work and evaluation,” the hospital report said.

According to news reports, police in about a dozen states are concerned about carbon monoxide leaking into the Police Interceptor model of the Explorer. Several officers have reported crashing, saying they passed out. The police department in Austin, Texas, has taken 397 Explorer police vehicles out of service pending a fix, according to Andy Tate, a spokesman for the city.

Ford says it is working with police on the issue. It has theorized that the problem could be that police drill holes to add special equipment. Those holes may not be properly plugged and that could allow fumes to enter.

While some owners of the regular Explorers may complain of an exhaust odor Ford said in a press release that “those instances are unrelated to reports of carbon monoxide described by some police departments.”

Not a limited problem

But Simmons says that’s baloney.

“The public needs to be made aware that this is not a problem limited to Ford Police Interceptor models as Ford would have you believe,” said Simmons, a retired project manager for IBM.

Simmons says he filed a complaint on the NHTSA website in August. He was contacted by the agency and told to write a letter and send the documents, which he has yet to do.

But his complaint is far from unique. The agency has about 800 notes, some of them angry, from worried Explorer owners going back to at least 2012. There are reports of occupants suffering nausea and vomiting — often young children seated in the back, where exhaust may be entering the vehicle.

“Toxic exhaust fumes get sucked in the car,” a Miami owner wrote in 2012. “Took the vehicle to the Ford dealer and was told that it has been happening to the Ford Explorer and that Ford Motor Co. knows, but does not know what is causing it.”

In July 2016 NHTSA opened a “preliminary” investigation, citing some owners’ “concerns about exposure to carbon monoxide.”

One month later, Ford responded to some of NHTSA’s questions. When the investigators went through that information and their own files, they found there were claims of exhaust problems on 2,000 vehicles.

But it wasn’t until July of this year that NHTSA intensified the investigation into a more serious “engineering analysis,” which is more likely – but not certain — to result in a recall.

With so many complaints, it is hard to understand why it took almost a year to upgrade the investigation, said Jason Levine, the executive director of The Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“No sense of urgency”

Levine said carbon monoxide is particularly insidious because there is no odor, yet there was no “sense of urgency” among federal officials. He worries that accidents blamed on drowsy drivers could have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. But, he said, nobody would know because drivers are not routinely tested for it.

“There is a real concern here this is not getting the attention it deserves,” he said.

A NHTSA spokesman said the safety agency had no comment.

Ford has been dealing with the issue since at least 2012, when it first sent a bulletin to dealers, suggesting repairs if owners complained about an exhaust smell. Those repairs included checking “body sealing” and using a “generous amount” of sealant. It updated the bulletin in 2014 and this year.

Simmons said Ford sent an engineer to inspect his vehicle at the dealership.

The engineer “found levels of carbon monoxide consistent with normal exposure in everyday life,” Ford spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt said in an email to FairWarning. She said those levels would not result in adverse health issues and declined to comment on Simmons’ medical report.

When NHTSA finally accelerated the investigation to an engineering analysis in July, investigators said they found no “substantive data or actual evidence” such as blood tests supporting a claim that any of the alleged injury or crash allegations were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Starting to investigate 2016 and 2017 Explorers

But then, without providing details, they added that they had “obtained preliminary testing” that suggests carbon monoxide levels “may be elevated in certain driving scenarios, although the significance and effect of those levels remains under evaluation.”

The investigation, which previously focused on 2011-2015 model year vehicles, now also includes 2016 and 2017 Explorers, including the Police Interceptors.

In addition to the NHTSA probe, the issue prompted a series of class-action lawsuits. They were consolidated into a case, tentatively settled earlier this year in federal court in Miami, covering 1.2 million owners of 2011-15 models.

While denying that the vehicles were defective, Ford agreed to the tentative settlement. It would include some additional efforts to fix the problem, and the lawyers would share $5 million in fees and expenses. The settlement isn’t final, however, because an outside party filed an appeal.

As for Simmons, he never got Ford to admit there was any issue involving carbon monoxide. But he said the dealer worked with him, took back the Explorer and got him into a used F-150 pickup for the same payments.

By Christopher Jensen

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