A prominent automotive safety advocacy group is renewing its call for Ford to recall 1.3 million Explorer SUVs from model years 2011 through 2017 amid rising complaints that dangerous carbon monoxide is leaking into the cabins and causing headaches, nausea, vomiting and other ailments.

The Washington D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety says complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the Explorer have risen 900 percent since the federal agency first began investigating the matter in July 2016. NHTSA has now received at least 1,381 complaints from Explorer drivers and passengers about exposure to carbon monoxide, an odorless gas whose symptoms mimic those of the flu and is responsible for more than 400 deaths per year in the United States. The group's executive director, Jason Levine, wrote a letter to Ford CEO Jim Hackett in which he noted the issue has not resulted in any deaths but concluded, "the time for Ford to take more serious action is now, before that luck runs out."

NHTSA opened a preliminary evaluation of Explorers from model years 2011 and 2015 in July 2016, then expanded its inquiry a little over a year later to an engineering analysis, adding Explorers from the model years 2016 and '17, saying it had received more complaints, including three crashes and 39 injuries. It said the most likely culprit was cracked exhaust manifolds. NHTSA first began looking into the issue in 2014.

Ford in October offered a no-cost service to North American owners of more than 1.4 million Explorers to make repairs and inspections to lessen the risk of exhaust-fume leaks. At the time, it said its own investigation had found no evidence of leaks and believes the vehicles were safe. The company has issued four technical service bulletins related to exhaust odors.

Ford continues to defend its decision not to issue a recall.

"Explorers are safe," Ford spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt said in a statement. "Ford's investigation and extensive testing has not found carbon monoxide levels that exceed what people are exposed to every day. The safety of our customers is paramount. We encourage customers with carbon monoxide concerns to bring their vehicle to their local Ford dealer for a free service designed to reduce the concern. If they are not satisfied with the service, we encourage them to call our dedicated hotline at 888-260-5575."

In its own statement, Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said Ford needs to stop sending "mixed messages" to Explorer owners and passengers. "Since some Ford dealers are responsibly replacing cracked exhaust manifolds, it is time for Ford to take a more serious step, recall all of these vehicles, and inspect and replace cracked exhaust manifolds," he said.

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