Bill to enforce gas alarms

Vadim Lavrusik

As spring approaches, the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning inside homes will decrease, but experts say the soon-to-be required carbon monoxide detectors are still crucial in catching the silent killer.

Although the Hennepin Regional Poison Center receives 75 percent of its carbon monoxide calls in the fall and winter months because of poor ventilation in homes, carbon monoxide poisoning can occur at any time, said Steve Setzer, a poison specialist for the Minnesota Poison Control System.

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For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning, go to: www.health.state.mn.us

But a new state law effective this year requires all new homes to have carbon monoxide detectors within 10 feet of each bedroom. All existing homes must comply by August 2008 and apartment buildings by August 2009.

Setzer said detectors are one of the most important life-saving tools a home owner can have because of the odorless and colorless nature of the gas.

“Unless someone suspects it, it doesn’t get picked up, but gets mistaken for the flu or something else,” Setzer said.

The detectors help alert unsuspecting victims of increased levels in carbon monoxide, he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2005 carbon monoxide poisoning claimed approximately 500 lives in the United States.

Setzer and others in the field said many of those deaths could have been prevented through the use of detectors.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who authored the new carbon monoxide detector law, said he understands the severity of the problem because his brother-in-law died from carbon monoxide poisoning at a cabin several years ago.

“I think that it just made me aware of it,” McNamara said. “I think it just showed the real mess, how it touches us.”

He said he hopes carbon monoxide detectors will prevent such accidents from happening and “save some folks.”

Although the law does not discuss penalties for non-compliance, owners of homes and apartments without detectors could face lawsuits from renters.

The burning of combustible fuel that is not getting enough oxygen causes carbon monoxide leaks in homes.

It happens in stoves, water heaters, generators – anywhere a fire is not getting enough oxygen. A giveaway for improper burning is a yellow flame instead of blue.

Bill Dane, staff attorney at Student Legal Services, said he saw one carbon monoxide case last semester, in which a home where students lived was condemned due to high levels of carbon monoxide.

The students had to vacate the house until the problem was fixed, he said.

Luckily, he said, the students were able to first detect a gas leak from a furnace, which was functioning improperly and creating carbon monoxide.

Neil Carlson, public health specialist at the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, said although detectors are helpful, other prevention tactics, such as good ventilation, help reduce the risk of poisoning as well.

Carlson said a person could feel the effect of a high concentration of the gas in the air instantly.

“You take one breath and you’re dead,” he said.

Most people experience flu-like symptoms of nausea, headaches and dizziness, not knowing they are slowly being poisoned, he said.

Detectors, which cost between $35 and $50, sound when carbon monoxide levels rise above normal, giving people time to respond and get treatment, he said.