CHARLOTTE, NC (Jane Wester/Charlotte Observer) - Nearly 150 Ford Explorers driven by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers have the potential to leak carbon monoxide into the passenger compartment. Police officers in Texas, California and Louisiana have all reported crashes or near-crashes connected to carbon monoxide fumes.
But it isn't time to send all 148 cars covered by a Ford safety bulletin back to Ford, CMPD Maj. Sherie Pearsall said Monday. So far, she said only 14 cars have been sent back to Ford.
CMPD first learned about the issue in February and immediately told employees about it, Pearsall said. Employees were told to be careful using the air conditioner's recirculation mode and to report any concerns. In the months since, Pearsall said only two employees have complained about significant odor and potential health issues from exhaust in their cars.
In March, the department installed carbon-monoxide detectors in each of the 148 cars, which are all 2011 to 2015 models of a law-enforcement-specific SUV similar to an Explorer. Officers whose detectors go off are expected to follow a series of simple steps: turn off the recirculation mode on the air conditioner, turn off the air conditioner, roll down the windows.
Pearsall said heavy traffic can cause the detector to go off, especially near a truck or other vehicle creating a lot of exhaust.
"It's the typical CO that you or I would get if we were standing on the sidewalk," she said.
If turning off the air conditioner and recirculation doesn't lower the carbon monoxide level, officers are supposed to turn the car in to CMPD's repair unit, which might then send the car to Ford.
Carbon monoxide leaks can occur when the car's transmission is in full throttle and air conditioning is on and set to recirculation, Pearsall said.
The detector was set to go off at 3 parts per million, which Pearsall said is intentionally low to keep officers safe. The Environmental Protection Agency's outdoor limit is 9 ppm over an eight-hour period.
Pearsall pointed out that carbon monoxide is present in many places, including near any road where cars produce exhaust.
CMPD also buys a type of Fords that can have police lights and other equipment added easily, so that the cars don't have to go through after-market modification, Pearsall said. Drilling holes in cars to install extra equipment can let exhaust in, according to Autoweek.com.
CMPD has about 1,400 vehicles in its fleet and several hundred Ford Explorers, Pearsall said. CMPD employees drive fleet vehicles about 20 million miles every year, she said, and officers use their cars as mobile offices, so they need to be able to safely spend a lot of time inside their cars.
One of the earliest examples of officers having issues with carbon monoxide in these cars was in Austin, Texas, in March. A police sergeant became ill at the wheel and nearly hit a bus before pulling off the road, the Austin American-Statesman reported. He still hasn't been able to return to work due to neurological issues related to carbon-monoxide poisoning.
In just four days this month, five Austin police officers were treated for health issues connected to carbon monoxide. Officials aren't sure why Austin has had more problems than other cities, the American-Statesman reported, but examples are hardly limited to one area – or even to police cars, based on complaints made to a federal safety organization.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation in 2016, citing complaints about exhaust entering the passenger compartment of Explorers built between 2011 and 2015.
In April, a 2017 Explorer in Georgia showed signs of the same problem, according to the NHTSA's website. The NHTSA's page for the 2016 Explorer shows a series of reports of the same issue, including one in Pikeville, N.C.
"While accelerating a weird smell fills the cabin of my Explorer," the complaint said. "Other people smell it as well not just me. Sometimes after driving for more than 30 minutes I get a headache or I am dizzy."