A Vineyard Haven homeowner was recently awakened in the middle of the night by beeping alarms. She could see no fire, nor smell any smoke. She went to a neighbor's home to stay the rest of the night.
She called the fire department the next morning to report that she couldn't turn off her smoke alarms. When Tisbury fire chief John Schilling arrived to investigate, he quickly realized something did not add up.
For one thing, there were no smoke detectors in the home, only carbon monoxide (CO) detectors. He went back to his truck for a carbon monoxide meter and brought it to the crawl space under the home where a furnace and hot water heater were located.
"My CO meter went right into the highest alarm readings that I have," said Chief Schilling. "Had she not had the carbon monoxide detector, she probably would not have woken up the next morning. I'm convinced that this saved this woman's life."
A Silent Killer
Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common type of accidental poisoning in the United States, accounting for thousands of emergency department visits and approximately 800 deaths annually, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless gas, caused by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels. If natural gas, oil, kerosene, or wood is used to heat a home, then carbon monoxide gas is being produced. Improper venting is often the cause of a dangerous build-up of gas.
Carbon monoxide molecules bond quite easily and strongly with blood cells. When that happens, it prevents oxygen from easily bonding with those blood cells, depriving the brain and other organs of necessary oxygen.
The poisonous gas can cause death in as little as ten minutes, if inhaled in large concentration. Inhalation of lower concentrations over a longer period, is equally dangerous.
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning mimic the flu. Someone who is affected may experience headache, fatigue, nausea, and dizziness. Some never connect these symptoms to the possibility of carbon monoxide build-up, and doctors can misdiagnose carbon monoxide poisoning. If asleep, carbon monoxide poisoning is doubly dangerous. The symptoms will not alert or awaken someone to danger, as fire or smoke might. Instead, they will cause a gradual loss of consciousness, and eventually, death.
The cause of carbon monoxide build-up may not be obvious. In the case of the Vineyard Haven resident, it was dense shrubbery blocking a vent.
In the case of Nicole Garofalo, a 7-year-old Plymouth girl, it was drifting snow that covered a vent. The little girl never woke from her sleep. Her tragic death in 2005 spurred a drive for new legislation. Nicole's Law now requires carbon monoxide detectors in nearly every Massachusetts home.
On November 2, Chief Schilling got another call, from a Vineyard Haven family.
"We were in the midst of repairing our boiler," said homeowner Robert Sawyer. "All of a sudden the carbon monoxide detector went off."
Mr. Sawyer, a former Dukes County Commissioner, knew about carbon monoxide detectors because of his job.
"I happen to be a real estate instructor, I teach about CO detectors," said Mr. Sawyer. "Boy do I have a case study to tell. We built the home six or seven years ago. We went out and bought carbon monoxide detectors long before there was a law."
Mr. Sawyer's family called 9-1-1, opened their doors and windows, and got out of the home.
For the second time in less than two weeks, Chief Schilling says a carbon monoxide detector prevented tragedy.
"This thing had been producing significant amounts of carbon monoxide. Their readings spiked quickly," said Chief Schilling. "They took all the right steps, they had carbon monoxide detectors in theright place."
Mr. Sawyer teaches his students that the law requires an inspection and installation of carbon monoxide detectors whenever a home is sold. Property cannot be conveyed without a certificate of compliance. But unless a home is sold, there is no effective way to know whether homeowners have complied with the law.
The number of fire calls for carbon monoxide alarms indicates that many homeowners are complying. According to the Massachusetts state fire marshal, fire departments responded to approximately 10,000 carbon monoxide calls in 2006, an increase of 93 percent over the previous year.
Mr. Sawyer has strong words of advice for anyone who does not have the detectors installed in their home.
"The carbon monoxide law police don't come knocking on your door," said Mr. Sawyer. "If you don't have them, get out and buy them. Just do it. Today. It's a very important thing. People die, how do you make it more important than that? Prevention doesn't cost hardly anything."
Good to Know
The only homes or multi-unit dwellings exempted from Nicole's Law are those with electric systems for heat and hot water.
Even an all-electric home, however, is not exempt if it has a fireplace, or an attached garage.
Landlords are responsible for installing, testing, and maintaining carbon monoxide detectors in rental units.
In single-family homes, a carbon monoxide detector is required on every habitable level. One must be located within 10 feet of every bedroom.
In many typical home layouts, the law requires one in the basement, one on the first floor, and one in an upstairs hallway. Often, just one detector is required on the upstairs level, if it can be placed so that it is no more than 10 feet away from any bedroom.
"Most people get away with two or three," said Chief Schilling. "It's a do-it-yourself, it's just plug it in. They are relatively inexpensive. Just go do yourself the favor, please put this in."
Carbon monoxide detectors are set to sound an alarm at very low concentrations. If the alarm sounds, it means carbon monoxide has been detected at levels that would be dangerous only if inhaled over a prolonged period. Chief Schilling says it should not be cause for panic, but everyone should leave the home, find fresh air, and call 9-1-1.
The fall is a time to be especially vigilant. It is the season when many carbon monoxide problems surface. "Some people are firing up their systems for the first time, they may not be adjusted properly, they haven't been cleaned in a while," said Chief Schilling. "Chimneys may be blocked. It could be leaves, it could be shrubbery, it could be any number of obstructions."
It is also a time of concern for people living in sub-standard housing, or who fail to use common sense during winter power outages. Carbon monoxide deaths have been caused by people trying to heat rooms with charcoal, camp stoves, or poorly functioning room heaters. Running a gasoline or diesel fueled generator in a garage or inside room can also cause carbon monoxide to quickly build to dangerous levels.
A check of a local hardware store showed prices for carbon monoxide detectors ranging from $29.99 for a basic model, to $69.99 for a model with advanced features, such as digital display, and battery back-up. A check of reputable on-line outlets revealed models ranging from $24.93 to $74.99.
Other advanced features include voice alarms, remote testing, and combination detectors that will warn of smoke or natural gas leaks, as well carbon monoxide danger.