WINCHESTER, Va. – On May 10 at 7 p.m., a thunderstorm roared through the local area, knocking out power to a Middle East District team member’s home.
Instead of a typical Friday evening, one mother and her two children will fight a deadly attacker that they cannot see, hear, or smell, but which has the ability to kill quickly and efficiently –carbon monoxide.
The family had planned a relaxing evening. Mom and daughter were hanging out while the son was upstairs helping Dad prepare for an early morning fishing trip. The thunder cracked frequently and rain banged on the windows. The full-house generator, located outside the house on a concrete slab in an enclosed metal box, automatically turned on when the power was suddenly cut. The family breathed a sigh of relief, realizing they wouldn’t have to use flashlights or worry about the steak in the freezer that night. They had no idea their lives were in danger as carbon monoxide leaked slowly into their home.
As the night progressed, Mom noticed she was tired but not necessarily out of the ordinary after a busy week at the Middle East District, supporting the mission. Both parents noticed a slight smell of propane in the house but thought it was just the wind blowing fumes back into the ventilation somehow. They weren’t worried since the smell was mild and the house so large. The family has had the generator for six years and always completes regular maintenance as required; it cycles through a 20-minute test every week with no issues, and in the past, it has run for days during blizzards with no problems.
Dad’s fishing trip was planned for early Saturday morning, so he woke up and showered about 2 a.m. He kissed his son, still sleeping soundly, and went downstairs where his wife and five-year-old daughter were sleeping. He had no idea how close he was to making that the last kiss he would ever give them.
The Mom woke up to say goodbye to her husband and mentioned a slight headache. She awoke again at 3 a.m., this time with an excruciating headache, and noticed the strong smell of propane. As she reached over to wake her daughter she realized what was happening – they were being poisoned! She grabbed her seemingly disoriented daughter who started to scream as if she was in pain. Mom ran with her daughter outside to fresh air and started shaking her, telling her to take deep breathes. The daughter started to have convulsions with her eyes rolling back into her head. For a moment, Mom thought that her daughter was going to die and a dreadful panic set in. After a while, that seemed to last forever, she noticed her daughter starting to come out of the cloud she had been in and she started complaining of a severe headache, dizziness, and nausea.
The Mom, who had forgotten about her own symptoms, then found herself feeling incredibly nauseated and her headache pain was like none she had ever experienced. She left her now coherent daughter to shut off the generator and then went back inside to get her sleeping son out of the house. To her relief, he seemed fine since he was sleeping upstairs (carbon monoxide is heavier than air and sinks so the gas had settled on the main floor helping to minimize the son’s and dad’s exposure).
Once everyone was outside, the Mom, clearly in shock, phoned her husband to tell him what had happened. Then she dialed 9-1-1 and was told to get to the emergency room immediately for evaluation. The husband rushed home and helped get the family to the ER, where the family’s blood was tested for carbon monoxide levels. All family members, even the husband who had left earlier, had high levels of carbon monoxide in their blood stream with Mom and daughter’s being the highest: Dad’s level was 9 ppm (parts per million), 10 ppm for the son, 11 ppm for the daughter and 17 ppm for Mom. The ER doctor said that if the levels had reached 20 ppm, they would have been sent to Baltimore to be placed in a decompression chamber for several hours, to assist in forcing the carbon monoxide out of the body tissues.
The ER directed the local Fire and Rescue to go check the levels of carbon monoxide in the residence. Even though the generator had been off and the house had been ventilated, they found extremely high readings of carbon monoxide in the basement and the main level. The firefighters also found that the house, which did not have a carbon monoxide detector, had damage around an intake vent near the generator on the outside of the house that may have been the entry point for the deadly fumes.
The family was treated and released from the hospital after receiving oxygen treatments for several hours. This team member was able to return to work the following Monday and we are all thankful for her quick reactions which saved her family. She is a hero!
Safety Officer’s Note: Carbon monoxide is odorless. Propane is also odorless but a scent is added to the gas so that detection can be made for fire safety. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of propane that does not fully combust, or turn to flame. The leak in the ventilation brought in another more deadly gas, carbon monoxide. As most of us would have, they thought the smell was a normal scent from an outside generator working away; the smell of propane should have been a red flag for the parents, and I know it will be next time!
Safety Tips for Home Generators
• If you decide you need a standby generator in your home, have it installed and wired by a licensed electrician, and make sure it meets fire underwriter regulations. Have that person brief you on all safety aspects of the generator’s operation.
• If you plan to use a portable generator to provide power during an outage, make every effort to use it properly. Read the manufacturer’s instructions. This will help you operate the generator as safely as possible.
• A generator should only be used outside on stable ground and away from any windows and vents to prevent deadly fumes from entering the home through an opening.
• Do not connect the generator to your home’s wiring. Power can flow out of your home into the electric system creating a hazard for crews working in the area.
• Install carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in your home. This is important year-around. CO is an odorless, colorless gas produced by fuel combustion that can make you ill with flu-like symptoms and in extreme cases can be fatal.
• Never fill the generator with fuel while it is running or still hot, and don’t store gasoline in your home.
• You will not be able to use all appliances at once. You may have to turn off some appliances to avoid overload. And make sure any connected appliances are off before starting the generator.
• Generators should be used for emergency standby power ONLY and for short periods of time. Your refrigerator does not need to run 24 hours a day to keep food fresh. Monitor the internal temperature, which should be kept at 40° or below.
• Always remember to keep a cell phone charged for emergencies or if you live in an area with no cell phone reception, keep a two way radio handy so that if an emergency occurs, you can call for help anytime!
Written by anonymous team member with added content by Jon Fentress, Safety Manager