Officials are urging residents to install carbon monoxide detectors in their homes as the calendar turns to the most dangerous period for sometimes-lethal incidents involving the odorless gas — many of which unfold slowly.
Hundreds of people die annually in their homes across the U.S. during the cold season because fuel-burning appliances like furnaces aren’t installed, maintained or used properly, said Matt Schilling, deputy director of communications at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Several fatal southwest Ohio incidents involved victims who weren’t aware there was an issue, even as symptoms set in.
“Chronic discovery is always more difficult to find out … The longer you are exposed, the more damage there will be,” said Rob Aiers, a lawyer specializing in CO poisoning cases.
“It goes unreported because people become ill over a period of time.”
CO claimed the life of a 65-year-old Dayton woman on New Year’s Eve 2017. In February 2015, three children were killed by CO in their Troy home, and a fourth child was critically injured. In 2011, a 48-year-old state patrol trooper and his wife died from CO believed to be emitted from a power generator during a power outage.
PUCO advises that if a furnace doesn’t burn natural gas properly or is not adequately vented, CO levels can build in the home over a period of time.
“When a person breathes carbon monoxide, their brain and organs are robbed of the oxygen necessary to function properly and they can become sick and incapacitated very quickly,” according to PUCO’s website.
Carbon monoxide causes the most non-drug poisoning deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1999 to 2012, 6,136 people died from CO exposure — an average of 438 deaths annually — and 54 percent of those fatalities occurred within the home, according to the CDC.
Most deaths from CO poisoning happen during the three winter months of December, January and February, according to a CDC study of incidents between 2010 and 2015.
In Ohio, 23 people died from CO poisoning incidents since 2013, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety. During that time, emergency medical crews responded to an average of more than 1,200 CO-related calls every year, according to the data.
Symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, dizziness, difficulty breathing, irritability and nausea, according to carbonmonoxidekills.com, a website managed by Aiers.
The UK-based attorney said all of his cases are in the U.S. and he is currently working on a potential claim in an Ohio incident.
In the 2015 CO poisoning case in Troy that killed three children and left one critically ill, the victims had suffered flu-like symptoms for days, and their grandmother had been hospitalized the day before firefighters responded to their home on South Elm Street and found the children unresponsive.
In January 2017, a vehicle idling in a Troy garage was believed to be the CO source in the death of a couple in their 90s. Investigators said the CO from the vehicle’s exhaust seeped into the home.
A 65-year-old woman died on New Year’s Eve 2017 from an accidental CO poisoning in her home on Speice Avenue, according to the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office.
At the top of most CO poisoning avoidance lists is installing a CO detector. CO detectors range in price from the LCD CO Smoke Detector alarm, $9.29 at Walmart, to the $612 Nest Protect, a combination CO and smoke alarm that connects to your smart phone.
But people who have CO detectors in their homes can still be exposed to the gas.
“CO detectors are not designed to go off until the saturation reaches 70 parts per million,” said Aiers, adding that chronic exposure to CO from 20 to 40 parts per million “can do devastating damage to the nervous system and body in general.”
The best detectors will provide digital readings of as low as five to 15 parts per million, Aiers said.
“There is no safe limit for CO, especially in the winter months when the home is air-tight,” he said.
Many fire departments, including the Dayton Fire Department, provide and install free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for residents who can’t afford them.
As part of its program to replace aging gas lines, Vectren this year is giving residents free CO detectors to customers who have been outfitted with new gas lines.
CO detectors should be installed in bedrooms or in hallways near sleeping areas, according to the Consumer Price Safety Commission.