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Carbon monoxide poses serious danger

by Molly Cochran

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a silent killer. It is important to know how it is detected and what the warning signs of a potential leak are.
Penn State student Lindsay Courtney is lucky to be alive today: high levels of carbon monoxide were found in her home.
In December 2012, Courtney got very ill with flu-like symptoms. She went to see doctors numerous times and kept hearing the same diagnosis: flu and dehydration.
Still, she remained ill.
Then, in February, after waiting five hours outside of Bryce Jordan Center in line for THON, Courtney couldn’t even form sentences. After a trip to the emergency room and a blood chemistry test that produced no abnormal results, she was sent home to sleep, not knowing that the very room she was sleeping in was causing her to be sick.
A subsequent trip to the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital also turned up nothing.
Then she went to the Cleveland Clinic. While she was at the clinic, Courtney’s roommate called and told her that there was a carbon monoxide leak in the house. She immediately told the doctors. A blood test through an artery proved that Courtney was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The carbon monoxide leak was coming from the furnace chimney backfiring into a faulty pipe and leaking directly into Courtney’s room. Courtney had kept her door closed when she slept and while at class, which prevented the poisoned air from moving out of her bedroom.
According to Courtney there were two detectors in the house. One went off in December, but they thought it was faulty, and then the other went off in February. This time the Alpha Fire Company came out to check the house for carbon monoxide poisoning, and the result was positive.
A detector will go off when 35 ppm (parts per million) or greater is detected. This level of carbon monoxide affects the health of young children and the elderly according to Steve Bair, the fire director for the Centre Region Council of Government at the Alpha Fire Company in State College. Values above 100 ppm are very dangerous to the health of the resident.
The level of carbon monoxide in Lindsay’s house was 140 ppm.
Bair said that the fire company responded to about 45 incidents related to Co2 emissions in 2012.
Carbon monoxide leaks are usually the result of fossil-fuel-burning-appliances such as gas stoves and furnaces.
“The downside is the carbon monoxide is odorless,” Bair said.
Most of the events happen in the winter because stagnant air remains trapped in residences.
If a detector goes off in a house or apartment, the fire company will come over to verify where the leak is coming from. Airing out the house with large fans and running all appliances to see where the leak is coming from are two steps the fire company makes to ensure the safety of residents.
An emergency situation is when someone is complaining of being sick, according to Bair.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can happen in residential homes or apartment complexes. Any building that burns fossil fuels is at risk for carbon monoxide leaks.
Inspectors from the State College borough inspect buildings and residential areas (which include student housing) every three months.
Housing inspector Bryan Sampsel said that not all buildings, however, are required to have detectors. For example high-rise apartment complexes may have detectors in different locations than a two-story house with a garage. “Your high-rise cookie cutter buildings are different based on location of the detectors and which units may need them,” Sampsel said.
Sampsel suggested that a good rule of thumb is (If there are fossil fuel burning appliances in your apartment) to have a detector in all sleeping areas and in any rooms surrounding the garage.
Tampering with detectors could be considered a “life safety violation,” carrying a minimum fine of $150, according to Sampsel.
Some helpful safety tips offered by Bair are to make sure a detector is in place; to test the detector once a month; if it begins to chirp, change the batteries to make sure it is working properly; and if you have questions, ask your landlord.
“The landlord is obligated to tell you which detectors you have and how to use them,” Bair said.
The Apartment Store was contacted and did not respond as of press time. A.W. & Sons was contacted and refused to comment.
Courtney offered some additional advice: keep a carbon monoxide detector in the area where you sleep; be aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poising; and if you suspect poisoning, make sure the doctors test your blood oxygen level through an artery, because a regular blood chemistry test will not show anything unusual.
“Please be aware that this odorless gas is a silent killer,” Courtney said.

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