Rush City family escapes silent killer

Close call with carbon monoxide poisoning has family warning others to buy or replace CO detectors at home

One Rush City area family is counting its blessings after escaping what has been called a silent killer.

If the snowstorm on Thursday evening, Feb. 20, wasn’t enough to deal with, this family of four thought of a number of reasons why they felt fatigued with headache and flu-like symptoms. Little did they know, the culprit was carbon monoxide poisoning — a colorless, odorless, tasteless and toxic gas that can come from fuel-fired furnaces, gas water heaters, fireplaces and woodstoves, gas stoves and automobiles.

In this case, the source was a displaced exhaust pipe from a little efficiency heater, which is kept in a utility room and behind a closed door in the home’s lower level.

Members of the Rush City Fire Department responded to the family’s Rushseba Township residence after receiving a call for help around 8:50 p.m. Fire Chief Bob Carlson, who was able to talk to the family’s mother by phone prior to his arrival, made sure her two daughters, ages 16 and 12, and husband were out of the home and covered in blankets.

Mom, who also obliged the chief’s urging, was not feeling the symptoms as the rest of her family, since she didn’t come home from work until later in the evening.

The family ended up staying the night at Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming, where Dad and the kids were treated with oxygen for eight hours. They were able to return home the next morning, but not before purchasing a couple of new digital carbon monoxide detectors that were recommended by Carlson.

Dad reflected on what he learned from the experience.

“Get those carbon monoxide detectors in your house, and keep them up to date,” he urged. “I stacked two things on top of even considering carbon monoxide. My youngest daughter came home sick from school, and I didn’t eat all day. I was not thinking carbon monoxide when it should have been considered.”

Carlson added, “We didn’t know all of the symptoms when we got here. They had the symptoms, and we got the people out and got them to the hospital. You have to look at the whole family.”

What typically would take 10 minutes took 23 minutes for the firefighters to reach the home Thursday night, as the snowstorm took its toll on the country roads. Once they arrived to the entrance of the driveway, firefighters had to use their vehicles to plow through the untouched snow that had accumulated on the long and winding path that was lined with low-hanging branches.

After the family was found safe and in the fresh air, Carlson took carbon monoxide readings in the home. The numbers jumped from 400 parts per million (serious headache-other symptoms intensify; life threatening after three hours) to 800 (dizziness, nausea and convulsions; unconscious within two hours; death within two hours) to 1,700 (headache, dizziness and nausea; death within one hour) the closer he got to the source in the lower level.

“In all of my years with the fire department, I’ve never seen our gas monitor escalate so quickly,” Carlson said. “We saved four people from disaster.”

While this is a story of survival and awareness, another incident recently ended in tragedy. Walter John Sanvig, 39, of Braham, and his girlfriend, Michelle Roule, died from carbon monoxide poisoning on Jan. 29.


About CO poisoning

According to information provided by Carlson:

Carbon monoxide replaces the oxygen in blood, causing the body to poison itself by cutting off the oxygen that is needed by organs, such as the heart and brain, and cells. Flu-like symptoms are an early indication of low-level CO poisoning, while more serious exposure can lead to dizziness, confusion, severe headaches, fainting and even death.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. It is estimated that 1,500 people die per year due to accidental carbon monoxide exposure, and an additional 10,000 seek medical attention.

The following tips are advised:

•  Do not run motors indoors, even if garage doors are open.

• Have your vehicles inspected for exhaust leaks.

• Inspect and repair chimneys, fireplaces, wood stoves and other appliances each year before cold weather sets in.

• Be sure your heating equipment has an adequate supply of fresh air for combustion.

• Open the flue when using the fireplace to ensure adequate ventilation.

When it comes to selecting a CO detector, purchase only those that have been tested by qualified testing labs. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and test it once a month with your smoke detectors. Replace CO detectors every two years or as recommended by the manufacturer. Also, families are advised to plan and practice a home evacuation plan with all members of the family.

If your CO detector goes off:

• Make sure no one is experiencing any signs of CO poisoning.

• If symptoms are present, everyone should exit the building, leaving the doors open as you go.

• Get immediate help.

• Use your cellphone or a neighbor’s phone to report the alarm and follow the instructions you are given.

• If symptoms of CO poisoning are not present, open the windows and doors, shut down heating and cooking equipment.

• Call a qualified technician to inspect and service your equipment.

• Be on the look out for symptoms of CO poisoning.

According to law, Carlson noted, “Everyone has to have a carbon monoxide detector, and they must be placed within 10 feet of a bedroom — so one detector could cover two or three bedrooms. If anyone needs batteries for their smoke or CO detectors, they can pick them up for free at City Hall courtesy of Energizer.”

In addition, Carlson urged people to clear snow from the chimneys on the roof and sides of their houses. And it’s important to keep driveways clear and address signs visible for emergency crews to access and find your home, he said.


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