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Carbon monoxide can be deadly intruder - 01/19/08

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Just after 9 a.m. last Friday, an alarm sent Rochester firefighters to a house in the 4500 block of Silver Creek Road Northeast. There was no smoke billowing from the roof and no flames shooting out of windows. Even the interior looked untouched. But there was a hazard, and over time it could be deadly. Carbon monoxide could be called a stealth gas. It can't be seen or smelled; it doesn't give itself away until it starts making you sick. And it accumulates gradually in your body. CO can be detected with special instruments, though. At the Silver Creek Road house, the level of the gas had risen to 25 parts per million, Rochester Fire Marshal Vance Swisher says. A CO alarm had alerted the residents. No one was injured. Government regulators consider 35 parts per million to be the maximum safe dose for an eight-hour workday. Had someone at the house been asleep with CO at that level, some level of poisoning was possible, Swisher said. "This is an important, rising problem," he said. A dangerous gas CO is generated by burning fuels such as wood, natural gas, liquid propane and coal. That's one reason why furnaces, stoves and other appliances have vents outside. A woodburning stove was being used at the Silver Creek Drive house, Swisher said. It had an outside exhaust, but cold weather and other factors apparently did not allow the pipe to vent the CO properly.

Ironically, tighter, energy-saving construction in newer residences can contribute to the CO problem. "Our houses aren't naturally breathing like they used to," Swisher said. The gas tends to accumulate in the house and in humans. It is dangerous because it replaces the vital oxygen carried in the bloodstream. At a high enough concentration, the gas can knock someone unconscious and unable to escape. While there have been deaths in other parts of Minnesota, Rochester has not had any CO-related deaths in recent memory, Swisher said. Rochester firefighters answered two carbon monoxide calls during the New Year's holiday weekend. In another call, an alarm was triggered by a car idling outside but with a garage door opened, Swisher said. He warns drivers to warm up cars outside, not in garages. The Rochester Fire Department does not charge a fee to respond to a carbon monoxide alarm.

Where does the law require carbon monoxide detectors to be installed?
Houses and apartments that have received building permits since Jan. 1, 2007.
Existing single family homes, beginning on Aug. 1, 2008.
Existing multi-family dwellings or apartments, beginning on Aug. 1, 2009.

What should you do if your carbon monoxide alarm sounds?
People and pets should leave the residence. Check for signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, such as headache, nausea and disorientation.
Call 911.
If it's not necessary, don't open windows and doors before firefighters or technicians arrive. They will want to trace the cause of the carbon monoxide build-up.

How many emergency calls for carbon monoxide detector alarms does the Rochester Fire Department receive?
2007 -- 35
2006 -- 23
2005 -- 40
2004 -- 34

Source: Fire Marshal, Rochester Fire Department

 

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