Biddenford, ME – (Jan. 15, 2009)

Posted by Courier Editor at 1/15/2009 3:13 PM and is filed under State News,Gillian Graham,Public Safety

By Gillian Graham

Staff Writer

Each year, an estimated 150 Mainers are hospitalized for accidental carbon monoxide poisoning and the odorless and colorless gas has killed five residents in the past several years. These are numbers one Maine senator would like to see decrease.

Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham is working on a bill that would require all new homes or home additions in Maine to have carbon monoxide detectors. He said the bill is currently being written and expects to present it to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee by early February.

Diamond said he began looking into such a requirement after a father and son from Windham died from carbon monoxide poisoning nearly two years ago while using an alternative heat source after power was disconnected to their home.

“We’ve discovered this is a requirement we can provide to hopefully save lives,” he said.

Carbon monoxide detectors cost between $30 and $40 and are easy to install, Diamond said. He said he has not heard any opposition to the idea and will try to keep the requirement on a “common sense level.”

“I have [a detector] in my house,” he said. “If someone’s building a house, it doesn’t even come up on the screen in terms of percentage of cost.”

Sanford Fire Marshall Peter Cutrer said carbon monoxide detectors are inexpensive and easy to install in homes. Detectors can be purchased at any hardware store and installed by simply plugging into wall outlets, he said. Cutrer suggested people look for a UL-listed detector and, if possible, purchase a model with a digital readout.

Cutrer said he has been meeting with other fire inspectors to discuss pursuing requirements that every home in Maine be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors. Newer homes are “airtight” compared to older homes, where the air changes every couple hours, he said. When air is not circulating toxic chemicals can build up over time and cause illness, he said.

With high heating costs in recent years, many Mainers are using space heaters and wood pellet stoves, which fire officials said have created some safety issues.

“The main concern is unvented space heaters and wood pellet stoves that aren’t install correctly,” Cutrer said.

A woman in Sanford was sickened by carbon monoxide after a wood pellet stove was installed improperly to vent inward, Cutrer said. She was awakened in the middle of the night by a carbon monoxide detector, but went back to bed after assuming it was malfunctioning, he said. The woman called 911 the following morning when she exhibited symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, he said.

Cutrer said this situation is an example of why people should not ignore detectors – for carbon monoxide or smoke – when they sound. If a carbon monoxide detector does go off, he said all residents should immediately leave the home, close doors behind them and call 911 from another location.

“Most of the time people feel their carbon monoxide detector is malfunctioning. They should take it seriously,” he said.

Biddeford Deputy Fire Chief Scott Gagne said the department averages a couple carbon monoxide related calls per month during the heating season and responded to 20 total calls in 2008. He said the main problem the department sees is improper use of generators during power outages.

“If you’re going to run a generator it should be quite a distance from the home,” Gagne said.

People should avoid putting generators in garages or entryways or against the house because “fumes can travel quite a distance,” he said.

South Portland Fire Department Deputy Miles Haskell said his department has responded to multiple carbon monoxide calls this winter, including one where five people were transported to the hospital.

On Dec. 7, South Portland fire officials responded to a call reporting two unconscious people. Unable to get in touch with tenants of an apartment, visitors looked through the window and saw them lying on the floor, Haskell said. Responding crews found two tenants unconscious and three others with high levels of carbon monoxide exposure, he said.

Haskell said a malfunctioning heating unit caused a build up of fumes in the two-family home, which did not have a carbon monoxide detector.

South Portland Assistant City Manager Erik Carson said a program for residents has been established to provide carbon monoxide detectors to homes at or below the median income. He said 30 households have requested more information or submitted applications for the detectors, which will be delivered by the fire department.

Carson said $2,500 of Community Development Block Grant funds has been designated for the program this year. He anticipates distributing at least 50 detectors to South Portland homes and continuing the program next year.

When carbon monoxide is present in a home, young children, pets and people with medical problems are the first to show symptoms, Cutrer said.Most detectors sound at 70 parts per million, though affects of exposure can begin at 36 parts per million, he said. Symptoms of low-level exposure include headache, fatigue and shortness of breath, he said.

Cutrer said healthy adults can usually tolerate up to 100 parts per million before feeling affects of exposure, though by 200 parts per million headache, fatigue and nausea set in. Exposure to carbon monoxide levels at 400 parts per million can be severe and cause death, he said.

“All it takes is a simple boiler malfunction or device that stops working properly and people can die,” Cutrer said. “It’s pretty serious.”