Jack Reynolds, head of respiratory therapy at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet, has had first-hand job exposure to the health dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. And yet, when the CO detector in his home went off during the early morning hours of Jan. 21, he was skeptical about whether it was the "real thing."
"I deal with victims of CO poisoning all the time, and even so, I hesitated," he admitted.
Around 2:30 a.m. that morning, Reynolds' wife awakened him to say she heard something beeping.
"At first, she thought it was my beeper from work, but I had it right there with me so we figured something else must be going on," he related. "I went upstairs and realized it was coming from the CO detector. Since the detector in the basement level where our bedrooms are located wasn't going off, at first I thought there was something wrong with it or that maybe the electricity had gone off in that corner, so I plugged it in another outlet and it still went off."
It was then that his wife said she smelled gas so he immediately called 911. Within five minutes, a Cloquet patrol car arrived and they were instructed to get in their car and drive over to the neighbor's house, since it was unclear if the issue was gas or carbon monoxide.
Within minutes, the Cloquet Area Fire Department arrived with gas sensors, and immediately upon entering the house, they found high levels of carbon monoxide in the house but no gas leak. The house was opened up to the frigid outside air to decrease the CO levels, and the gas appliances were examined and then turned off. Reynolds and his wife were asked to go to the emergency room for examination but declined.
"I was a little sleepy because I'd been sound asleep when the alarm went off at 3 a.m., but other than that we both felt fine," he attested.
The Reynolds returned to their house about an hour later and were able to keep the internal temperature up through the use of electric heaters and the in-floor heat on the lower level until the furnace repair crew could come later that morning to check it out. Though the furnace had been serviced last fall, issues had developed that had potentially life-threatening consequences.
"They found tiny leaks in the joints of our stainless boiler exhaust pipe and cleaned the direct vent exhaust fan for the gas hot water heater," said Reynolds.
CAFD Captain Jesse Buhs said the department has responded to several serious carbon monoxide leaks recently.
"Fortunately, none of them unplugged their detector and figured they'd check it in the morning," Buhs said. "Because there wouldn't have been a tomorrow morning."
The Reynolds' have had a CO detector in their home for the past 10 years, replacing the original one in 2010 and installing a second last fall for the other level of their house.
"The one in the basement level of our house, where our bedrooms are, did not go off that night," explained Reynolds. "The one upstairs did. In talking with the fire department, the chief said that some of the newer houses are built really tight, and when it gets really cold there's kind of a stacking effect that takes place. Some of the tainted air comes in the lower level, rises and leaks out above if you don't have an air exchanger, which we don't."
Firefighters said the CO level in the Reynolds' home was higher upstairs in the loft than it was anywhere else because the stacking effect creates a negative pressure in the lower part of the house if you don't have an air exchanger. As the air cools down at night, the warm air from downstairs rises up.
As head of CMH's respiratory therapy department, Reynolds said he has seen people die of carbon monoxide poisoning. He said the "silent killer" causes disorientation, anxiety, sleepiness, and after a time, it can affect your eyesight and your ability to think, depending on how high the levels are. He added that sometimes it can take a long time to get over the effects of it because the carbon monoxide binds to the hemoglobin in the blood, which normally carries oxygen.
"That's why we've long been told it's so important to have a CO detector," said Reynolds. "But the recommendation to have one on every level is somewhat recent. I went out and bought a third one the day after our scare, to add to the two I have, which seems kind of extreme - but worth it. The fire department recommended one with a digital readout, which costs a little more, but when it goes off you can actually see how high the level is."
Reynolds said he hopes that by sharing their experience, others will understand the vital importance of installing carbon monoxide detectors in their homes and businesses and practicing certain safety measures to safeguard against poisoning.
"This is the time of year when people are trying to save money so they run kerosene heaters in their house or their trailer, which is even tighter, or they run a heater in their garage when they're working on a car," he said. "We've have some bad incidents in the past from that type of thing."
Another risky behavior, he said, is leaving a car running in an attached garage, whether the door is open or not, or running appliances such as gas heaters or anything that has an engine fueled by gasoline, propane, natural gas, oil or wood.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that can be fatal when inhaled, and in many cases of CO poisoning victims are aware they are not well but they become so disoriented they are unable to save themselves by either exiting the building or calling for assistance. Young children and household pets may be the first affected.
"Our grandchildren's bedroom is right next to our furnace room," said Reynolds, "and we were so happy our grandchildren weren't there that night because the little ones are more susceptible to CO poisoning."
According to the Kidde company, which manufactures CO detectors, CO can be produced by any fuel-burning appliance that is malfunctioning, improperly installed or not ventilated correctly, such as automobiles, furnaces, gas ranges/stoves, gas clothes dryers, water heaters, portable fuel burning space heaters and generators, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves and certain swimming pool heaters. It can also be produced by burning charcoal or fuel in grills and hibachis in an enclosed area.
Some of the conditions that could produce carbon monoxide, according to Kidde, include: negative pressure resulting from the use of exhaust fans, simultaneous operation of several fuel-burning appliances competing for limited internal air, vent pipe connections vibrating loose from clothes dryers, furnaces or water heaters, obstructions or unconventional vent pipe designs, extended operation of a fuel-burning device, temperature inversions which can trap exhaust gases near the ground or a vehicle idling in an attached garage or near the home.
Carbon monoxide is a cumulative poison, so long-term exposure to low levels can cause symptoms much the same as short-term exposure to high levels.
Upon advice from their heating contractor, the Reynolds' are now having a new chimney installed and are contemplating having an air exchange system put in their home as well. Above all, they're thanking their lucky stars their experience had a happy ending.
"We owe our lives to the carbon monoxide detector and to the rapid response of our local police and fire departments, and we can't thank them enough," said Reynolds. "We can preach at people all day long about this and that, but sometimes it takes a close call before you really pay attention to it. Hopefully it doesn't take someone getting killed first."