The Silent Killer
by Christopher Bloom
No one heard the door open or a window shatter. Nobody saw a figure enter the small, darkened one-story home at the corner of Antioch Avenue in a slumbering Maryland neighborhood. There were no shouts, screams, or cries for help; the killer was silent, efficient, and dispassionate. And after the deed was done, the faceless killer simply vanished, virtually into thin air. By the time the sun rose the following morning, a single father and seven children were dead. There were no signs of entry and no fingerprints, footprints, or tire marks to assist the police. But there was one critical piece of evidence that helped the authorities to identify the killer: A portable gas-powered generator was discovered inside the home, its gas tank now empty….
And who did it? Carbon monoxide, often called “the silent killer.”
It almost sounds like the premise for a horror movie, but that was a true story. The tragedy occurred in April 2015 in a small community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, roughly 20 minutes from Salisbury University. Rodney Todd had separated from his wife a few years back, and the now-single dad was trying his best to keep the lights on and the food on the table for his seven children. He was committed to keeping his children, ranging in age from six to 15 years, happy, healthy, and safe. But his income from a dining services job at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore campus wasn’t enough to cover their living expenses. With no electrical service to his home, Mr. Todd installed a portable gas-powered generator to keep the lights and heat functioning through the cold nights.
What Mr. Todd didn’t know or understand was that he’d installed a combustion device in his home, and any stove, heater, lantern, or lamp that burns gas or oil fuel releases carbon monoxide (CO) into the air. Carbon monoxide is colorless, tasteless, and odorless, and it can kill you. You can breathe it in while sleeping or while talking to a friend or family member without realizing that you’re being poisoned, and it only takes a few minutes of exposure to be affected. If you’re awake, you may feel light-headed or weak, eventually experience flu-like symptoms, such as weakness, vertigo or dizziness, stomach upset or vomiting, or chest pain. If you’re asleep (or even inebriated, for that matter), you may not even notice these symptoms at all; you simply don’t wake up the next morning for work or school. Or anything ever again. Just like that.
Unfortunately, Rodney Todd’s story is not an isolated incident. On February 21 of last year, Leonard and Heather Quasarano and their four children, ranging in age from 23 months to 11 years, perished inside their two-story home in Fenton Township, Michigan. Their power went out, so the Quasaranos set up his gas-powered generator in the basement to keep the family comfortable as they slept, a fatal mistake. Said Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell, “It’s very difficult just talking to the undersheriff who was in the house and saw all the bodies in the different rooms,” he said. “No matter how long, how many investigations we conduct, seeing young children, an entire family wiped out, is just a very, very sad thing.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unintentional CO poisoning (non-fire-related) results in 20,000 emergency room visits, 4,000 hospitalizations, and roughly 300 fatalities every year in the U.S. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s estimate (200 non-fire-related fatalities yearly) is more conservative but still tragic, especially when it happens to someone you know.
But you don’t have to die from CO poisoning to be affected by it. Even what some might describe as a “low-level,” nonfatal CO exposure may still result in permanent organ or brain damage. You may also suffer other side effects, such as headaches, amnesia, loss of muscle control, incontinence, and personality changes. These are usually short-term problems for most victims, but they can be permanent in some cases.
So how do you defend yourself and your family against a villain who can’t be seen, heard, smelled, or touched? What extra steps could Rodney Todd have taken to protect himself and the seven children who occupied that small house on Antioch Avenue? Are you making the same mistakes? How long before your luck runs out?
While there are many things you can do to reduce the likelihood of CO poisoning, let’s focus on two solutions that might’ve saved Mr. Todd and his family.
First, avoid running any kind of combustion device inside your home. Read the instructions and heed the warning labels. If you must use a combustion device indoors, make sure that you have adequate ventilation. “Adequate ventilation” means that there must be some source of fresh air nearby, usually an open window or door. The window can be open only a few inches, but you must provide a way for fresh air to enter your home so that oxygen binds with the CO molecules, which creates carbon dioxide (CO2) instead.
Second, install CO alarms (also “monitor” or “detector”) in your home, if they aren’t there already. According to NCHH’s National Healthy Housing Standard, a CO alarm is “an electronic device that measures the level of carbon monoxide gas… [and] … activates an audible alarm when an amount … above the device’s threshold level accumulates in the area in which the alarm is located.” The alarms look very much like a smoke detector and work similarly. The International Fire Code requires (and the Consumer Product Safety Commission also recommends) smoke and CO alarm models that include a voice notification system. There should be one CO alarm on each floor and outside each sleeping area, near the bedroom. NCHH is promoting CO alarm requirements as a safety provision in the National Healthy Housing Standard. Maryland (where NCHH is located) requires that homes constructed after January 1, 2008, have a hardwired CO alarm; some states have similar laws. Last year, NCHH proposed an amendment before the International Code Council that would require CO alarms in all properties governed under the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC). ICC codes currently require only that CO alarms be installed in new structures and in existing properties where a building permit has been requested for renovations. Such an amendment would result in CO alarms being as prevalent in properties as smoke detectors, which we feel is extremely important for public safety.
Since most older homes have no CO alarms, that’s where you come in. If your budget is tight, you can buy a CO alarm for under $20; units with more bells and whistles, such as models that also detect smoke or explosive gases, cost more but are still affordable; and they’re a small price to pay for peace of mind. You can even buy a “travel alarm,” which is not a bad thing to have with you on a trip, because you’ll never know when you’ll need one.
If your CO detector runs on batteries, be sure to replace them twice per year. You should install new batteries when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall, just as you do with your smoke alarms. You were already doing that, right?
Great, you’ve installed the CO detector! That’s your best tool for protecting your family and yourself, although there are several other ways to minimize the threat of CO poisoning. For example, when shopping for appliances or equipment, be sure to look for products that have been approved by a nationally recognized testing lab, such as UL or NSF International. Make sure that any gas appliances are vented properly, with horizontal vent pipes angling slightly upward. Have a qualified service technician inspect your heating system and combustion appliances annually, and, if you have a fireplace, get your chimney checked for blockages every year. Also, don’t burn charcoal or use a portable gas camp stove or inside.
Now, let’s say your power’s on, your furnace works just fine, and you don’t have a gas generator in your kitchen or living room. Are you still at risk for CO poisoning?
Yes, you may still be in danger. Here’s another story: It was two days after Christmas when Melissa and Jorge were killed. They left their home in New Jersey on a frosty night to celebrate their anniversary at a charming little bed and breakfast in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, laughing and joking flirtatiously. The happy couple pulled off the road and parked for a moment in front of a strip of storage garages. Melissa had a key. Should they or shouldn’t they? Melissa opened the door to garage 55. They backed in, and Jorge shut the door. They needed a little privacy, just for a few minutes; then they’d be back on the road. But they never saw the killer that entered the garage with them…
Most CO exposures occur inside the home, but there are far too many incidences of accidental exposures and deaths relating to car exhaust fumes wafting into the living areas of homes and poisoning families. Some are unusual, such as the case of the man who committed suicide in his garage but inadvertently killed his wife and two daughters as they tried to rescue him, that tale of the amorous New Jersey couple who lingered in their car too long, or the tale of heroic father who realized that his car had been idling and opened the garage door, preventing the deaths of his family and their neighbors but not his own—he collapsed and died before he could shut off the car’s ignition, a shocking reminder of how quickly carbon monoxide can overcome a person; but most of the stories are just sad. And all of these tragedies could have been avoided if only the victims had known that about the silent killer that is carbon monoxide.
Now that you know what to do and what not to do, be safe and sleep peacefully.