The three people found dead in a Gatineau home on December 30th died from carbon monoxide poisoning, the cause was found to be a generator in the garage attached to the home that was being used to power a refrigerator due to a power outage. Unfortunately a task as simple as moving the generator outside could have saved their lives. A second factor in this case is that the family obviously didn’t have a working carbon monoxide detector in the home. Should one have been present they would have been alerted to the increasing levels of carbon monoxide well before it became lethal. Proof of this occurred a week before in Sarnia Ontario where the Hrynuik family can attest to the importance of these devices and credits one for saving the lives of their family on Christmas Eve. A wood burning stove in their basement was installed incorrectly and was found to be venting improperly, by the time that fire crews arrived at the home the level of CO in the home was 57 ppm. This is above the acceptable level for prolonged exposure and could prove fatal for some people, especially infants. Carbon monoxide is completely odorless and cannot be detected without the use of a detecting device. The most common symptom associated with early onset carbon monoxide poisoning is flu like symptoms, in most cases this would likely be brushed off considering the amount of influenza during the winter season. Carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the red blood cells and doesn’t disperse quickly in the lungs, this prevents the exchange of gasses which is what we do when we breath. In prolonged exposure the carbon monoxide levels continues to build in the body until the person suffocates.
Carbon monoxide poisoning as in the two cases mentioned previously is often only associated with the home, however another concern for our areas such as ours is snow covered vehicles. Dangerous driving conditions often result in cars sliding off the road and being stuck in deep snow, in this situation most people would simply call for the tow truck on their cell phone and remain in the running car to keep warm until help arrives. A running vehicle in this condition can lead to rapid build up of CO in a very short time. A study conducted in Maryland for Tufts Medical University in 2004 found that a running snow covered vehicle can reach lethal levels often in less than 5 minutes. The key item of concern is the snow around the tailpipe, unless the tailpipe is cleared of snow for a minimum distance of 12” in all directions all the way to the ground, the levels of CO will eventually reach a lethal level. Considering that vehicles are not equipped with CO detectors running them for any length of time in this type of situation is simply playing with the lives of the occupants.