The silent killer: keeping your family safe from carbon monoxide poisoning

ST. GEORGE – In the wake of a possible carbon monoxide poisoning incident in northern Utah over the weekend, the American Red Cross of Utah released a list of safety tips Monday on how to avoid becoming victims of the potentially fatal gas.

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless and silent killer that, nationally, claims hundreds of lives each year,” the Red Cross said in a statement. “A threat year-round, carbon monoxide poisoning tends to increase when winter storms and power outages force people to turn to unsafe alternative heat sources such as fuel-burning appliances, gas generators, camp stoves and charcoal grills and use them in confined spaces.”

While nine people living in a fourplex in Provo, Utah, ended up going to the hospital Sunday night, the incident did not produce any fatalities, according to KSL.com. Residents were alerted to the presence of carbon monoxide in the complex by a CO director. Firefighter at the scene credited the detector with saving the lives of the buildings tenets.

Both the Red Cross and St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker recommend that people have CO detectors in their homes.

Where does carbon monoxide come from?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide is found in the fumes produced by motor vehicles and gas-driven/powered appliances like stove ranges and heating systems. It is also produced by burning charcoal and wood.

Left to disperse out in the open air, the fumes aren’t much of an issue. However, when locked in a confined or semi-confined space with poor ventilation, the gas will build up and poison any person or animal present.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

Systems of CO poisoning are similar to the flu, Stoker said. Symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, sleepiness and confusion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide is picked up by the blood’s red cells faster than oxygen is. If there is enough of a CO in the air, the oxygen in the blood will be replaced by the killer gas.

“This blocks oxygen from getting into the body, which can damage tissues and result in death,” the CDC states on its website. “CO can also combine with proteins in tissues, destroying the tissues and causing injury and death.”

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, move quickly to a fresh air location, and then call 911.

Ways to prevent CO poisoning

The American Red Cross of Utah listed the following recommendations on how to avoid become a victim of a carbon monoxide build up:

  • Have heating systems, including chimneys and vents, inspected and serviced annually, checking for blockages, corrosion, and partial and complete disconnections.
  • Do not use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens or clothes dryers to heat your home. Never use a generator, grill or camp stove inside a home, garage or basement.
  • Treat the alarm signal as a real emergency each time. If the alarm sounds and you are not experiencing any symptoms described above, press the reset button. If the alarm continues to sound, call the fire department.

How St. George Fire responds to possible CO poisoning cases

When the St. George Fire Department arrives on the scene where an unconscious individual is present, they test for potential CO poisoning as standard procedure, Stoker said.

The Fire Department currently has four devices on hand that allow them to check both the CO levels in a structure or confined space, as well as the CO level in a patient’s blood. Firefighters are all equipped with CO monitors.

If an area is shown to have high concentration of carbon monoxide, the firefighters will put on their full gear and independent breathing apparatus, Stoker said. They then re-enter the building and proceed to open windows and doors to help ventilate it. Qwestar Gas is also contacted and responds to the scene, the fire chief said.

The St. George Fire Department has responded to a number of CO calls over the years, Stoker said. Some cases have been CO calls, while others have been false alarms.

However, there was in incident in 2011 that resulted in a fatality.

Fatal instance and a close call

In March 2011, emergency crews responded to a residence in St. George were three siblings, each in their 80s, were possible victims of CO poisoning. A friend checked on the trio after they didn’t make it to church. He was able to enter their home, where he then smelled gas. Two of the siblings were taken to Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George for care. The third sibling, a sister, died before the paramedics arrived at the scene.

The incident was believed to have been an accident. A car in the garage was left running and evidently forgotten about, filling the home with the deadly gas.

More recently in San Juan County, a carbon monoxide leak triggered the evacuation of an elementary school in November 2013.

Students and faculty at Montezuma Creek Elementary were exposed to the gas the morning of Nov. 18 after an exhaust pipe connected to some water heaters disconnected and began venting gas into the school. Multiple 911 calls were made related to affected patients. In all, 44 patients, consisting of students, faculty and a volunteer EMT were transported to area hospitals for care. No fatalities were reported in connection with the incident.

There has been speculation that CO poisoning may have played a part in the death 70-year-old Washington City resident Roy Dale Merrill. Merrill was found in a mine shaft in the Warner Valley area, Thursday, unconscious and unresponsive. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that CO poisoning is one of the many potential fatal factors being considered, but could not offer anything definitive as the investigation into the death continues.

The Sheriff’s Office and the Utah Medical Examiner’s Office are working together to reach a conclusion of the cause of Merrill’s death.

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Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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