Family survives carbon monoxide poisoning

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 4/11/01.

Usually the Moser family sleeps soundly at night. But Wednesday, March 21, turned out to be anything but a normal night at their rural Paynesville farm house.

The heat exchanger of their eight-year-old furnace cracked, emitting natural gas through the house and poisoning the family with carbon monoxide.

Andrew, 9, apparently was the first to get out of bed because of its effects. He went to the kitchen for some ibuprofen because of his headache. He either dropped the bottle or fell, and his sister, Sidney, 12, found him on the kitchen floor and got him to the couch.

Sidney had trouble getting back to bed herself, falling on the stairs, and ended up crawling back to bed.

Their mother, Laurie, came down to the kitchen a little after three in the morning. "I made it down the stairs and I just fell down," she explained. "I got up and fell down again."

"I was crawling into the kitchen and collapsed," she added.

Laurie remembers thinking clearly, but being unable to move. At first, she thought she was suffering a heart attack or stroke but was able to rule that out because she had no other symptoms.

All the while she was evaluating her predicament, she was lying on the kitchen floor, breathing the poison. "The scariest part for me about it was that the floor just felt so good against my face. I know I would have just laid there and died," she said.

Luckily, her eldest daughter, Lindsey, a junior at St. Thomas who was home on spring break, heard her mother and got out of bed. Lindsey fell on the stairs, but was able to call out to her dad, Marty, and wake him.

"For some reason, Marty wasn't as affected as the rest of us," said Laurie. He soon realized what was happening and was able to get outside and get some fresh air. Then he was able to go back inside and get Lindsey, and they called 911 and got the other family members out of the house.

All five family members were taken to the Paynesville Area Hospital, where Andrew, Lindsey, and Laurie were monitored for several hours.

The incident was one of the worst cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in the area in years, according to Chuck Hagen, who responded with the fire department that night.

"They were really lucky," said fire chief Jim Freilinger, who wasn't at the scene but read reports later.

The fire department usually responds to a couple cases of carbon monoxide poisoning a year, according to Freilinger. Hagen, who works in plumbing and heating, said they see 30 to 50 milder cases a year at work.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can be caused by any incompletely burnt carbon-containing fuel, according to the Hennepin County Medical Center.

In a fire, the fumes are heated and lighter than air, so people are urged to stay low, out of the smoke and the heat closer to the ceiling. In a gas leak, though, the carbon monoxide is just slightly heavier than air, said Freilinger., keeping it in the house and the strongest concentrations at the floor level.

Keys for avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning are to have your furnace checked each year. Laurie said their furnace had been checked last year, but a recall notice had not reached them.

Hagen said it's easy to be lulled by the ease and reliability of a gas furnace, but they still should be checked. "There are parts internally that can go bad, and that's what happened to this one," he said.

"Any heating appliance should be checked regularly," Freilinger concurred.

Another safety item is to install a carbon monoxide sensor. Hagen recommended ones with digital readouts so the carbon monoxide level can be constantly monitored. Other alarms only sound when the carbon monoxide level gets too high.

Since the gas is odorless and colorless, this is the only way to check for it. For extra safety, one can be located by the furnace and another by the bedrooms. "It's better to err on the safe side," said Hagen.

Mike Putzke and the Paynesville Boy Scouts did some carbon monoxide awareness in the community five years ago as his Eagle Scout project. According to his research, a carbon monoxide detector should have the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) symbol.

The Mosers are back home, with a repaired furnace and a new carbon monoxide detector. "That was like the first thing we did," said Laurie, "and then I checked the battery on the fire alarm, just to be safe."

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