Orlando, FL – Residents in an Orlando condo building escaped a silent killer Thursday morning when a generator locked inside an under-construction unit leaked dangerous levels of carbon monoxide into their homes.
The odorless, colorless gas claims on average more than 400 lives a year across the country, officials say.
But the quick-thinking actions of a local nurse and Orlando firefighters most likely saved the lives of at least half a dozen residents.
The Orlando Fire Department responded about 2:15 a.m. to the Walden Palms Condominium complex off Vineland Road after a family of four started feeling ill and drove themselves to a local hospital.
Doctors discovered the family had carbon-monoxide poisoning and alerted fire officials, who immediately checked the family’s home for a gas leak, according to the Orlando Fire Department.
They found carbon monoxide levels between 300 and 400 parts per million more than four times the level where most people start experiencing poisoning symptoms.
But firefighters couldn’t find any gas lines leading into the family’s condo, officials said.
They started searching outside the multi-unit building and then they found it: A generator left on and inside by a construction crew renovating the condo.
The firefighters broke inside and then heard a loud noise from the condo above, fire officials said.
They rushed upstairs and found a resident alert and responsive, but unable to move from the gas, Orlando Fire spokeswoman Ashley Papagni said.
Emergency medical crews took that person, along with another resident, to a local hospital for treatment.
Gas can kill in minutes
In all, six residents were taken to the hospital and five others were treated at the scene for carbon-monoxide poisoning, officials said.
Orlando police said none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.
Local health officials say, though, that the risk is high for serious health issues from prolonged carbon monoxide exposure. And heart attack, stroke or even death can happen within just minutes.
Dr. Josef Thundiyil, a medical toxicologist and emergency medicine physician with Orlando Regional Medical Center, said the fact that carbon monoxide is undetectable without an alarm makes it extremely dangerous.
It comes from the inadequate combustion of fossil fuels, he said, most often seen in Florida by generators left inside or in a garage, from car exhaust, grilling inside and in house boats.
He said it doesn’t happen as often in Florida as it does in northern states, where residents are more likely to use gas-burning furnaces, but it’s still a danger.
Especially since it’s also difficult to diagnose, he said.
Sick? Get fresh air, call 911
Symptoms typically mimic the flu, with most people reporting a headache, dizziness, weakness, and an upset stomach, he said. In serious cases, though, carbon-monoxide poisoning can also cause chest pain, confusion, loss of consciousness and death.
He said most people don’t realize they’re experiencing poisoning and the best thing to do is be suspicious when feeling ill.
“You have to be a little suspicious and think about in your own home,” he said. “Are you using some alternative source of energy like a fireplace, like a generator, like a running car?”
If so, Thundiyil said the first thing residents should do is get outside to fresh air and then call 911 for help.
With treatment, most people recover just fine, Thundiyil said. But severe poisoning can cause brain damage and strokes.
Thundiyil recommends every home have a carbon-monoxide detector the only way to know if levels are unsafe.
He has several in his house, he said.
Keep grills, generators outside
Papagni said the Orlando Fire Department recommends installing detectors in or near every sleeping area.
“If the CO alarm sounds, immediately move to a fresh air location outdoors or by an open window or door, and call 911,” Papagni said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends residents have gas-burning appliances serviced only by qualified technicians.
Charcoal grills and generators are also culprits for the gas and should always be kept outside and up to 20 feet away from a window, door or vent, the CDC said.
Papagni said fire crews ventilated the condo building and eventually obtained safe gas levels, but evacuated residents for 12 hours as a precaution.
The Walden Palms Condominium complex is in southwest Orlando, just off Interstate 4 on Vineland Road, about half a mile south of the intersection of Conroy Road.