The Deadly Killer
Code Officials, Building and Fire Inspector’s, stand behind the security, safety, and stability of every building you see. It is those officials that help our communities’ weather unforeseen disasters such as fire, severe weather, and earthquakes. It is the goal of code officials to ensure that our buildings meet standards which will allow our communities to prosper and our homes to be safe. As Code Officials our work is to ensure that we protect human life. The following story is true:
It was late spring, and temperatures were starting to warm up but not enough to turn off the furnace. At about 8:30 p.m. a call was answered by our dispatch center. A resident wanted to schedule a time the next day to have a carbon monoxide test performed at their home. The dispatcher took down the resident’s name and phone number and advised the caller that they would contact the Building Inspector to setup a time to conduct the inspection. Dispatch advised the caller that he would be contacted when a time was determined to perform the test.
I had just settled in for the evening and was catching up with the family when I received a call from police dispatch at 8:35 p.m. The dispatcher explained the call they had received about setting up a time for a carbon monoxide test. It struck me as odd that someone would be calling to set up a time for a test at that time of night. I asked the dispatcher to give me the call back name and number so I could make contact. I promptly hung up with dispatch and called the number. The phone rang and rang with no answer.
I waited a few minutes and redialed with the same result. I called dispatch back to verify the number; it was the same as the one I had written down. Concerned, I tried calling the number several more times and had the same result -- no answer. By this time, I had become very alarmed. Why was there no answer? My mind began to run through scenarios. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless killer.
I called dispatch and requested that they have a fire fighter meet me at the Police Department with a carbon monoxide tester. We would then proceed together to the address. I let my family know that I did not have a good feeling and needed to go check on the caller as I grabbed my coat and headed out the door. I met with the firefighter and we proceeded to the address.
We arrived at an older two-story house and we observed that the lights were on but could see no activity. We approached the door and knocked. In those tense moments waiting for the door to open the mind starts to run worst case scenarios: What if they don’t answer the door? How many people live in the house? Has carbon monoxide rendered them helpless? Do we need to get the emergency services en route?
A sigh of relief came over us when a young gentleman finally answered the door. I introduced myself and the fire fighter. I then asked the young man why he had called for a carbon monoxide inspection. He explained that they were renting the house and the landlord had been contacted about a rusted through vent pipe for the hot water heater. The gas company would not turn the gas back on until it was replaced. He said that the landlord had replaced the vent pipe and the gas was back on. He added that both the furnace and hot water heater were working but that he, his wife, and their three children had been sick for months. All had experienced illness, headaches, and general weakness but the doctor was having trouble figuring out what the cause was. I asked if we could see the repairs that had been made. He said sure and we proceeded to the basement.
At the bottom of the steps, I observed that the gas hot water heater had a new vent pipe installed in the brick chimney. I could see the furnace. The resident stated that the landlord had replaced the old furnace with a newer used furnace. So, I started my inspection with the newer used furnace. The vent pipe was not connected to the outside and was allowing carbon monoxide back into the house. I also observed wiring on the furnace motor that was rubbing on the motor as it turned. It was not far from shorting-out and causing another issue.
Next, I inspected the hot water heater vent which was placed in the brick chimney. Standing on the back side of the brick chimney, I could see the fire fighter through the chimney, standing on the other side and shining his flashlight. The light was projecting through the missing mortar in the brick, which had deteriorated over time, and allowing carbon monoxide to enter the house. There were no working smoke alarms or carbon monoxide detectors in the home.
The furnace and hot water heater were shut down to prevent any more carbon monoxide into the house. I ask the family to open the windows to let fresh air in and allow the carbon monoxide to dissipate and advised them to find another place to stay until repairs were made. Their landlord was contacted and advised of the issues and repairs were made to correct the issues causing carbon monoxide to leak into the house. The family of five was able to walk away from a potentially deadly situation and recover from the health issues.
I often wonder, would the story have ended differently had we not responded that night and waited to the next day? Carbon Monoxide is silent and deadly. When an individual is exposed to excess amounts of carbon monoxide, it can build up in the bloodstream. As the concentration of carbon monoxide in the air increases and the lungs begin to pull it in, the body starts replacing oxygen with it. This results in serious damage, unconsciousness and even death.
Since carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, individuals can be overcome by it without any warning. Proper ventilation of spaces where it could accumulate is vital to prevent poisoning. Homes should have carbon monoxide and smoke detectors to help protect renters and homeowners. If you have any questions or suspect problems in your home, please feel free to contact your local Building Inspector or Fire Department.