Life-saving tip: Change your carbon monoxide detector, not just the batteries
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can cause sudden illness and death.
DOUGLAS COUNTY — On average, 14 people die every year of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in Minnesota and 300 visit emergency departments each year for symptoms of CO exposure, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
The Minnesota Department of Health listed several sources of CO in homes:
- Clothes dryers
- Water heaters
- Furnaces or boilers
- Fireplaces (both gas and wood burning)
- Gas stoves and ovens
- Motor vehicles
- Grills, generators, power tools, lawn equipment
- Tobacco smoke
CO is an odorless, colorless gas that is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned , according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can cause sudden illness and death. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, confusion, and tiredness.
The threat of carbon monoxide hit too close to home for one Alexandria resident, Cindy Seidel.
Last November, Seidel noticed recurring headaches and that her dog became lethargic. She chalked it up to the early symptoms of the flu and her dog's old age. Months went by, however, and she wasn't getting better. Even her granddaughter became sick after spending a brief time with her last December.
Seidel went to the doctor numerous times and received multiple medications to try and alleviate the symptoms but nothing worked and the doctors could not find a cause.
Then one day in January, two of her three smoke/CO detectors went off in her rental home. She called her son — who is a volunteer firefighter — to help her get them off the wall. When he did, he noticed they were from 2001. After they were taken down, one of them went off again, this time with a verbal message, "Warning. Carbon Monoxide."
She called management for her rental and they had a worker from Ellingson's Plumbing and Heating come out to take CO readings. He found that the level of CO in her home was "off the charts," Seidel said. After searching throughout the house, they determined the CO was coming from a crack in her furnace. Management replaced the detectors and the furnace was repaired. But, a day after the new detectors were installed, they went off.
Ellingson's again came out and found that this time, CO was coming from her garage. She said she parks backward in her garage; something she says she had been doing for years without setting the detectors off. She wondered, why now?
Well, it goes back to the old detectors. When the city sends out inspectors to test CO detectors in rental properties, all they are required to do is push the battery test button. Seidel said she contacted four fire chiefs from across the state who told her that carbon monoxide detectors combined with smoke detectors are not as reliable because the element that detects CO has a shorter expiration date than the detector itself.
"There are both pros and cons to a dual detector," said Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow in an email. "The problem with a CO detector combined with a smoke detector mounted on the ceiling is that smoke rises and CO is heavier than air. So by the time a ceiling-mounted CO detector goes off you've likely been exposed for quite a time."
Karrow added that AFD averages about five calls a year related to CO exposure. He explained that the only mitigation the AFD can do is to assess and open windows to get air in.
"CO is likely coming from, for instance, a crack in the furnace or exhaust," said Karrow, adding that repairs are done by HVAC companies.
The Minnesota Department of Health says the typical lifespan of a CO alarm is between five to seven years, but it varies by manufacturer. Seidel's detectors were over 20 years old.
For months, CO was slowly building up in Seidel's home. Because her detectors were outdated, they didn't go off until the level of CO reached "off the chart" readings. Seidel considers herself lucky that nothing worse than sickness came out of the ordeal. She attributes her luck to being outside as much as she can and leaving her bedroom window open most of the time.
Seidel brought her experience to the attention of the Alexandria City Council. During its regular meeting on Monday, Feb. 13, the council addressed the CO issue. They said Seidel's story is a good reminder to change carbon monoxide detectors every five to seven years, install them on every level of your home, keep them within 15 feet of fuel-burning appliances and make sure nothing is obstructing the detector. They added that batteries should be changed every six months.
Seidel said although she still feels symptoms due to the long exposure, she is getting better and so is her dog.
Tips from Minnesota Public Safety:
- Test CO alarms monthly.
- If a CO alarm sounds and you feel ill, call 911 immediately. If you feel fine, open windows and doors and call your utility company.
- Clear snow and debris from furnace, dryer, fireplace or oven vents around your home to prevent a CO buildup.