Lisle, IL – By Eva McKendrick and Paige Winfield, Naperville Sun

Lisle resident James Casey and his family woke up Oct. 15 dizzy, with chest pains and headaches.

“The more I went upstairs, the dizzier I got,” said John Montgomery, Casey’s son.

Casey called the Lisle-Woodridge fire department, which found a carbon monoxide reading of 110 in the house on the 6000 block of Mill Bridge Lane. The average reading is between 0 and 3, said Dan Anderson, the Lisle-Woodridge emergency medical services bureau chief.

Casey, his wife, mother, 4-year-old daughter and grown son were all sent to Edward Hospital in Naperville, where elevated levels of carbon monoxide were found in their blood, Anderson said. All were released and are staying with relatives in Chicago until the source of the gas can be determined.

Mark Plasky, a maintenance worker from Energy Services, visited the Casey house Oct. 17 and found a furnace that was 22 years old and rusted and had never been properly maintained. His assessment concluded that the furnace had leaked carbon monoxide.

“It may have been a combination of a blocked chimney, but the furnace needs to be replaced,” Plasky said.

The Caseys aren’t the only ones who have been confronted with a carbon monoxide leak.

Killing more than 2,000 people each year, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. An additional 20,000 health-related issues each year are attributed to carbon monoxide exposure, as reported by the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Hopefully, a new Illinois law will lower these statistics.

Beginning Jan. 1, a state law signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in May will require all residences that use fossil-burning appliances or have an attached garage to have working carbon monoxide alarms installed within 15 feet of every bedroom.

Casey had two carbon monoxide detectors in his home. In preparation for winter, he said he checked all the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors a few weeks ago. He found both carbon monoxide detectors faulty but forgot to get replacements. He figured it wasn’t a big deal and that he could get them fixed later. He feels differently about that decision now.

Although a 1994 Chicago ordinance requires carbon monoxide detectors in new homes or homes with new furnaces, the new law will require almost all Illinois homes and apartments to have detectors. Eighty-seven percent of Illinois housing uses some form of fossil-fuel-based heating (natural gas, fuel oil or kerosene).

Similar laws exist in New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Alaska, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont, as well as the city of St. Louis. Lisle has no ordinance mandating carbon monoxide detectors.

Frank Lesh, president-elect of the American Society of Home Inspectors, applauds the law, calling the installment of carbon monoxide detectors critical.

“It’s like putting your seat belt on when you’re driving,” Lesh said. “You can go your whole life without using (detectors), but so many people die and get injured each year because they are not using them.”

Too efficient?

Homes are built more tightly than ever, with improved insulation, windows and caulking. Although newer residences lower occupants’ heating bills by keeping warm air inside, their insulation also prevents carbon monoxide from escaping, Lesh said.

Older homes aren’t exempt from the threat of carbon monoxide, either. Housing units built before 1990 tend to present a greater risk for buildup because their older heating systems are more susceptible to leaks. They are also more likely to supplement heating with kerosene heaters, wood-burning stoves and other potentially dangerous fossil fuel sources.

Although furnaces can be made efficient, Lesh said carbon monoxide almost always will be produced. If there is any obstruction – such as a bird’s nest – in a house’s chimney, the dangerous gas will stay within the house’s negative pressure.

Lesh said residence owners should have their furnaces and fireplaces inspected before turning them on this season and make sure there is never any soot, dust or dampness on the outside, which also can lead to increased levels of carbon monoxide. They should avoid using unvented gasoline or kerosene space heaters or generators inside their homes.

Alarms can save lives

Lesh also said people should beware of leaving their cars running outside their home’s windows or in an attached garage, even if the garage door is open.

Often called the “silent killer” by experts, carbon monoxide is invisible and cannot be smelled or tasted. That is why ASHI recommends carbon monoxide detectors that send off an alarm when the level reaches a certain point. Studies done in part by Illinois researchers show a dramatic correlation between alarm ordinances in cities and lower death rates from carbon monoxide.

Detectors range in price from $20 to $50. Lesh recommends digital detectors that retain memory of the highest levels between the times they are checked. He also says a detector should be placed on every floor of the residence and replaced about every five to 10 years, depending on the directions.

If a carbon monoxide detector goes off in a home, occupants should go to a neighbor’s home and call the fire department or a qualified technician.