Scare brings awareness to carbon monoxide poisoning

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— Hundreds of Yampa Valley families have some last-minute holiday shopping to complete and don't even realize a carbon monoxide detector is on their list of stocking stuffers.

After 10 members of the Roaring Fork High School girls basketball team survived a brush with death here Dec. 13, heating contractor Bob Rowe says a carbon monoxide detector would make an ideal gift for homeowners.

"That would make a good present for your children. You should put one in the mechanical room. Make sure it has an audible alarm, because you're never going to go down there and check it," Rowe said. "Put one or two more upstairs in the living space."

Building Department chief Mark Marchus seconded Rowe's suggestion.

"If people are concerned about carbon monoxide -- and it is the silent killer -- there are detectors available. They can spend as little or as much money as they want," Marchus said.

Carbon monoxide detectors are most important in Steamboat homes with natural gas or propane heating systems. Electric baseboards don't involve combustion of gas and don't generate carbon monoxide.

Rowe is a heating contractor based in Steamboat Springs. His company, Alpine Heating and Sheet Metal, has not dealt with the vacation duplex where the girls basketball team was poisoned. However, in nearly 20 years here, Rowe has inspected many residences where the homeowners are unaware they are in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Some homes are vulnerable to an acute case like the one involving the teen-age athletes last week. Other people could have the symptoms of low carbon monoxide levels building up in their bloodstream over time, Rowe said.

Last week's close call sent 10 young basketball players and three of their coaches to Yampa Valley Medical Center, where they were treated with oxygen and released. They had gone to bed the night before in a rented duplex on Montview Drive. Two of the girls woke up in the early morning hours of Dec. 13 with headaches and nausea. They went back to bed and were fortunate to wake up with their teammates in the morning.

Often in cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, the victims retire for the night and never awaken.

David Cionni, an emergency room physician at Yampa Valley Medical Center, said the 13 patients were suffering from moderate toxicity and responded quickly to treatment. A quick blood test revealed poisoning in the range of 16 percent. Serious poisoning can range to 30 percent or 40 percent.

"When it gets high enough, you're in trouble," Cionni said. "The treatment is extremely straightforward. The moment you put oxygen on those people, it starts to go down."

Cionni did not treat the members of the Roaring Fork basketball team last week.

He said when people recognize they might have symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, the recommended action is straightforward -- round up the pets, open some windows and take yourself out of the situation by leaving the building.

Older adults and young children are more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning because they don't tolerate stress as well, Cionni said.

The 13 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning that were treated here last week were attributed to a leaky flue pipe by employees of Atmos Energy. They were summoned by the fire department to check the home after two ambulances took the victims to the hospital.

Documents on file at the Routt County Assessor's office show the home at 2010 Montview is owned by James Webster, who also has an address in Missouri. Calls to a local phone number were not answered.

City officials required the duplex not be occupied until the faulty heating system has been inspected by the Regional Building Department.

Building Department chief Mark Marchus said at midweek he had not received a request from anyone to inspect the structure. He was considering exercising his authority to conduct an inspection absent a request by the homeowner.

"We do have the authority to go back in and reinspect if we have reason to suspect (the heating system) was altered and noncompliant," Marchus said.

The building department routinely inspects the mechanical systems of new buildings before issuing a building permit. The next time a problem with a natural gas appliance in a commercial lodging property might be spotted would come during an annual fire inspection.

However, Steamboat Springs Fire Marshal Jay Muhme said his staff isn't looking specifically for problems that might lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

"We make a general inspection of furnace rooms looking for any glaring hazards," Muhme said. "If they see a flue pipe that's off, we tell them to fix it immediately. But my guys are not mechanical inspectors."

Evlyn Berge is the owner of Special Places of Steamboat, a property management company that manages a number of single-family homes for vacation rental. Her company does not handle the duplex where the basketball team suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. But she is sensitive to the danger.

All of the homes Berge's company manages have smoke detectors, and some, but not all, have carbon monoxide detectors.

"It's something we're working toward," Berge said. "I think it goes with the owner and agent hand in hand to make sure the house is safe."

Every fall, her staff visits each of the properties the company manages and performs a "winter punch list." Furnaces and batteries in smoke detectors are among the items on the list.

Rowe said the system depends on several entities to ensure the safety of home heating systems. But the greatest burden is on the contractors.

"Heating contractors are liable," Rowe said. "It's a checks and balances system, but they're relying on us to do things right."

Rowe spots potential carbon monoxide disasters waiting to happen every spring when temperatures run into the 40s and the winter's accumulation of snow on Steamboat's metal roofs begins to slide.

That heavy, wet snow can damage, or even shear off, flue pipes, causing vented gases to back up into the home. Homeowners shouldn't procrastinate in these cases, Rowe urges.

"If your pipe is bent or dented, you'd better get somebody in there to fix it," he said.

Often, Rowe said, homeowners unwittingly disrupt the equilibrium of their home's ventilation system by trying to plug up what they perceive to be "cold air leaks" in their mechanical rooms.

"If there's cold air coming in through a 'hole' in your mechanical room, it's there for a reason," Rowe said. The ventilation systems in buildings must be able to replace vented air, Rowe said. Interfering with that air exchange can cause vented carbon monoxide from the furnace flue to be sucked back into the home.

Homeowners don't always understand this, and Rowe can't tell you how many times he's found critical ventilation ducts plugged up with rags, wads of fiberglass insulation and cardboard.

It's not uncommon for someone to purchase a home in Old Town Steamboat and remodel the kitchen. The newer range hoods might suck 1,000 cubic feet of air per minute out of the home. That can overpower a ventilation system that was installed with the house 50 years earlier. The situation is exacerbated if the homeowner has plugged up "drafts" that were actually facilitating the exchange of air in the home. When that happens, the kitchen fan will suck air into the home through the next available opening.

Often, that is the furnace flue, and the result is that the fan pulls carbon monoxide back down the flue and into the living space.

Rowe recalls visiting an expensive home that was so tightly insulated, when the homeowner turned on her range hood, flames from her gas fireplace were pulled outside the fire box where they were depositing soot on the river rock surrounding the unit. The problem was solved by cracking the kitchen window whenever she used the range hood.

Changing furnace filters monthly, something that costs less than $20 a winter, is another way to ensure a home is "breathing" properly, Rowe said.

Even the improper placement and height of furnace flues on a rooftop can create carbon monoxide danger, Rowe said. Gusty winds pouring over a steep roofline, where the flue is too short, can prevent flues from venting properly, causing the poisonous gas to back up into the home.

LaVeta Adamoli of Littleton and her family have had the scary experience of seeing carbon monoxide back up into their home on a windy night. The Adamolis own a vacation home here on Blackberry Lane.

When their adult son urged them to purchase a carbon monoxide detector a few years ago, they viewed it as "just another gadget," Adamoli said. Although it was installed in the house, they paid almost no attention to it.

Their perception of the detector's value was reversed in the fall of 2000. Their extended family was visiting the home when the detector saved them from a potentially dangerous situation.

"It was early in the evening and we had been out for a few hours. My 13-year-old grandson noticed it," Adamoli recalled.

The meter on the carbon monoxide detector was in the plus range of the scale. Initially, the Adamolis "figured it was nothing."

But when the meter went up another tick, they called the fire department.

The portable carbon monoxide meter carried by the firemen confirmed that carbon monoxide levels in the house were unacceptably high, and the highest levels were on the second level, where another 2-year-old grandchild was sleeping.

"We were so fortunate," Adamoli said. "Before, we never paid any attention to it. Now we look at that monitor all the time. We would never be without one."

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