Montpelier, VT – By Robin Palmer, Times Argus Staff Hill Street residents Blanche and Charles Bousquet credit a gift from their youngest son with saving their lives.
Several years ago, he gave them a carbon monoxide detector. Two weeks ago, when they turned on their gas furnace for the first time this heating season, the detector sounded, alerting the elderly couple to a broken boiler and carbon monoxide leaking into their home.
“It saved our lives,” said Charles Bousquet. The couple called the Montpelier Fire Department, which responded with a fire truck and ambulance and found a low level of carbon monoxide, but could not nail down its source.
A faulty furnace damper was originally thought to be the cause, but further inspection from Johnson & Dix Fuel workers revealed the boiler had rusted out.
The Bousquets have of course thanked their son, after their morning of chaos.
Alive to tell their story, Blanche Bousquet said she wants to get the word out on the importance of having carbon monoxide detectors in the home. “We just thought people out there should be aware,” she said.
Local and state fire officials agree.
The latest state report shows fire departments responded to 490 carbon monoxide-related calls between 2001 and 2003, five of which resulted in deaths, said Robert Howe, assistant state fire marshal. Howe works for the Fire Prevention Division of the Vermont Department of Labor and Industry.
Nationwide, carbon monoxide sends 10,000 people to hospital emergency rooms for treatment each year and claims more than 200 lives, according to information from the federal Department of Labor and Industry.
Montpelier Deputy Fire Chief Gesualdo Schneider described carbon monoxide as an invisible, odorless gas released during what he called “incomplete combustion.”
“Any source of fire, whether it’s a woodstove, an oil burner, coal stove or propane (gas) stove, has the potential to produce carbon dioxide,” Schneider said. “Therefore, it is recommended that everyone have a carbon monoxide detector.”
The gas is picked up by red blood cells in the body, causing flu-like symptoms at low levels or in early stages.
According to Schneider, while carbon monoxide poisoning can occur any time of year from gas- or oil-fired hot water heaters or running cars, for example, it is most common in the spring and fall when outside air is warmer than winter temperatures and chimneys do not vent as well.
The Bousquets had turned their furnace on one evening this fall to take the chill out of the air, shut it down for the night and then turned it on again in the early morning. It was then that the basement carbon monoxide detector alerted them to the problem.
Blanche Bousquet says it’s a good thing the furnace was not on overnight. Sleeping two stories above the basement in their cape-style home, the Bousquets probably would not have heard the alarm, she said.
While heating systems are the most common cause of carbon monoxide leaks, Howe recommends placing carbon monoxide detectors in bedrooms rather than basements so they can be heard. “It should be where they’re sleeping,” he said.
Howe calls carbon monoxide detectors an inexpensive safety measure. They’re commonly available at department and hardware stores for $19 and up.
Howe also recommends having furnaces checked annually by professionals.
Three of Vermont’s most recent carbon monoxide deaths were a result of an improperly operated gas boiler, one was the result of an improperly vented generator and one remains under investigation, Howe said.
In his 25 years on the Montpelier Fire Department, Schneider said he doesn’t recall a carbon monoxide death in the city, but the department has responded through mutual aid to carbon monoxide deaths in nearby towns, Barre and Cabot.
This is also Fire Prevention Week, making smoke alarms on the forefront of firefighters’ mind, as well. The focus of the week is maintaining and installing smoke alarms, Howe said.
Ninety percent of fatal fires in Vermont over the last five years were in buildings with no working smoke alarms, the assistant state fire marshal said.