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Federal Regulators Open Investigation Amid Reports of Exhaust Fumes Wafting into Ford Explorers

Valley of Fire, Nevada, USA - May 23, 2011: A Ford Explorer SUV travels on a winding desert road toward distant red rock formations in the Valley of Fire state park in Nevada.

A Ford Explorer on a desert highway. (NoDerog/iStock photo)

Federal regulators are investigating a possible defect in Ford Explorers following scores of complaints about exhaust and carbon monoxide pouring into the passenger compartments of the popular SUVs.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had received 154 complaints from owners of 2011 to 2015 Explorers, who reported exhaust leaks into their vehicles.

According to the agency, the owners said the problem occurs when the vehicle is running at full throttle, such as while climbing hills or using the air conditioning system in recirculation mode.

Along with noxious fumes in the cabin, consumers have reported cases of vomiting and nausea, often involving young children and pets seated in the back where the exhaust enters the vehicle. The exhaust leak was also blamed for one low-speed crash, NHTSA said, although no injuries were reported.

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Federal officials did not say how many Explorers would be covered by the investigation, although hundreds of thousands have been sold in recent years. NHTSA opens an investigation to determine if there is need for a recall.

The agency has been aware of the issue since at least 2014, and the number of complaints has increased more than six-fold since then. Ford has issued two bulletins to dealers on how to fix the leaks but owners report little or no improvement.

“We will cooperate with NHTSA on this investigation as we always do,” a Ford spokeswoman said.

The automaker faces a growing number of lawsuits over the issue, including a class action on behalf of 45,000 Explorer owners and operators in Florida that is scheduled for trial August 8 in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale. The lawsuit seeks damages for loss of value of the vehicles due to the alleged defect, potentially amounting to tens of millions of dollars.

The lawsuits claim that Ford has known about the problem since 2012 but has done little to correct it, leaving hundreds of thousands of defective vehicles on the road.

“Our position is that this is a defect that exists in every Explorer” sold between 2011 and 2015, and possibly other model years, said Jordan Lewis, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney for plaintiffs in the Florida class action.

Exposure to carbon monoxide, an odorless gas, can cause serious and even fatal complications. Common symptoms include headaches, nausea, and vomiting.

According to Lewis, Ford has taken the position that the levels of carbon monoxide, if any, are too low to pose a danger to human health.

Karl Eckhardt of Northridge, Calif., and his 2016 Explorer. (Photo by Mark Crutchfield)

Karl Eckhardt of Northridge, Calif., and his 2016 Explorer. (Photo by Mark Crutchfield)

But in complaints posted on the NHTSA website, some consumers said their vehicles were professionally tested and showed carbon monoxide levels exceeding 100 parts per million. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission web site, levels above 70 ppm have been associated with headache, fatigue and nausea, while sustained concentrations above 150 ppm can cause disorientation, unconsciousness, and even death.

“We simply are not sure” about the health risk, Lewis said. “What I can tell you is that cars are not supposed to leak [carbon monoxide]…and I think it dramatically affects what a fully informed [consumer] would be willing to pay for the car.” Besides Florida, lawsuits are pending in California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Louisiana.

While denying there is a defect, Ford, in December 2012 and July 2014, issued two “technical service bulletins” with instructions to dealers on fixing the leaks. The bulletins called for adding sealant and undercoating to the rear of the vehicle, and software changes to the AC recirculation mode. Some complaints said the fix did not work.

While the investigation currently covers Explorers through model year 2015, people with even newer models say they have had problems.

Karl Eckhardt, of Northridge, Calif., was so concerned about the fumes in the 2016 Explorer he began leasing last fall that he bought a portable carbon monoxide detector, which he says confirmed the presence of the gas in the vehicle.

Eckhardt says he first noticed a “rotten egg” smell in February while on an anniversary trip with his wife as they headed over the Cajon Pass from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. He brought the vehicle back to his dealer for the repairs Ford directed in its service bulletins. They didn’t help.

Concerned about the health risks, he recently purchased an SUV from another manufacturer after Ford refused to take the Explorer back or offer a credit on another purchase. “I don’t want to put my wife and kids in fear for their lives,” says Eckhardt, 42, a camera technician who works in the film industry, and a Ford customer for almost 25 years. The Explorer mostly sits in the garage at his shop.

Others also said their Explorers, which fully loaded can cost up to $50,000, were reeking with exhaust and unsafe to drive.

“My 8-year-old daughter has complained of a stomach ache and the need to throw up every time we are in this vehicle on an extended trip,” a woman from Gilbert, Ariz., said in a complaint to NHTSA about her 2013 Explorer. “We chalked it up to motion sickness and even started giving her Dramamine, which never worked. When we rented cars for trips, she didn’t have the sick feeling.”

“I am livid,” the woman wrote. “Ford has knowingly endangered my family.”

A man from Hialeah, Fla., complained that strong fumes entered the passenger compartment while he was accelerating to pass a truck on the highway. “Instantly, we start coughing and get watery eyes. Our year-old baby start crying showing symptoms of distress,” the man said, adding that the family received no relief from Ford. “Ford from first day treat us like if we were inventing the matter, and make my wife look like if she were crazy.”

A Hollywood, Fla., man said he often goes on drives with his dog in the back seat, which became a problem only recently. “Prior to my Explorer, my dog never got sick when being driven,” he wrote in his complaint. “Since buying my Explorer my dog has often gotten sick, including vomiting.” The man said that tests detected carbon monoxide in the air inside his Explorer.

According to a complaint from an owner in Garden Grove, Calif., “It’s only a matter of time before a child that is strapped into his seat dies of C.M. poisoning!”