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Carbon monoxide is the silent killer

1/3/2010

By KALEY CONNER

By KALEY CONNER

kconner@dailynews.net

The night of Dec. 13 started typically enough for Ty and Jennifer Wallgren's family. But around 3 a.m., something went horribly wrong.

Their 9-year-old son, Brock, woke up sick.

He was vomiting, and his parents assumed he had contracted the H1N1 flu virus. By 7 a.m., 12-year-old Zach Wallgren was sick too.

With every passing hour, the symptoms worsened. Ty and Jennifer were battling severe headaches. One of the boys passed out in the shower.

"That's when I thought 'This (isn't) the flu. Something's going on,'" Ty Wallgren said.

Looking for an answer, he ran to his computer and googled "severe headache, wintertime."

"The first thing I came up with was a carbon monoxide leak," he said. "We had the exact same symptoms to a T."

The family called their gas company, evacuated their Kensington home and headed to the Smith County Memorial Hospital emergency room, where they were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Wallgren now knows the culprit was the family's furnace, which was cracked and had been slowly filling their house with the deadly fume.

His sons had been sleeping in their basement bedrooms -- located "right by the furnace," he said. Downstairs, a gas company representative recorded dangerously high carbon monoxide levels, Wallgren said.

"We figured we were in the house nine or 10 hours," Wallgren said. "He said, literally, we shouldn't have even made it out."

* * *

Unfortunately, carbon monoxide-related incidents are not uncommon during cold winter months.

In the past two years, the Hays Fire Department has responded to 45 calls for possible carbon monoxide leaks, said Firefighter Brandon Zimmerman.

"They call that the silent killer because it's invisible, odorless, colorless," he said. "Basically, it comes from any kind of fuel that hasn't burned through."

The fume is most commonly emitted by gas-powered stoves or heaters, and also can fill the home if a vehicle is left running in a closed garage.

That was the scenario that claimed the life of Zachary Harmon, a 22-year-old who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in July 2007 at a Hays triplex.

Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include flu-like symptoms such as shortness of breath or headache. The skin also begins to take on a reddish hue, Zimmerman said.

At Hays Medical Center, the number of patients diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning is relatively low.

Carol Groen, director of emergency services, said the hospital sees fewer than 10 patients with this diagnosis every year. Carbon monoxide poisoning, however, can be difficult to recognize.

"Sometimes carbon monoxide looks like the common flu. They come in with nausea, vomiting, and so they are often treated for flu-like symptoms," Groen said.

While symptom management is a first step for treatment, emergency room staff is aware of this possible threat, especially in winter months, she said. If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, a blood test will be administered, Groen said.

"This is that time of year, and everybody needs to be aware of that," she said. "It can mimic so many other types of symptoms."

Of course, there are precautions that can be taken to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Home owners should make sure gas heaters are not running with an obstructed flue, and carbon monoxide detectors should be installed, Zimmerman said.

While it is normal for homes to contain slight measurements -- about three ppm -- of carbon monoxide, the alarm will sound if those levels become dangerously high.

Local residents who would like help installing carbon monoxide alarms can contact the Hays Fire Department at (785) 628-7330.

"They're cheap life insurance, I guess you could say," Zimmerman said. "Kind of like a smoke detector, they're there working all the time to let you know if something's wrong."

* * *

It took the Wallgren family a few days to recover from their ordeal, but all are healthy, and their home has been newly equipped for carbon monoxide protection.

They had a new heater and three new carbon monoxide detectors installed the very next day, Ty Wallgren said.

"We changed batteries in smoke detectors religiously, but we never thought of carbon monoxide," he said. "It's odorless, it's tasteless. You don't even know it's in there until you're overcome by it."

Now, the family wants to share their story in the hopes that others will take the same precautions, he said.

And needless to say, the family is counting their blessings that the problem was identified in time for all to escape safely.

"I don't know to this day, other than the good Lord," Wallgren said.