Vermillion, SD – A Vermillion husband and wife and their two young children avoided serious health consequences and likely death thanks to carbon monoxide detectors in the residence they are renting in town.

Vermillion Fire/EMS Chief Shannon Draper said department personnel responded to a call Thursday night from a member of the family who reported that their carbon monoxide detector was sounding and nothing they had tried to silence it was working.

“The family that was there called, and we went out and we found levels very high – and if they hadn’t had a detector, it would have been fatal during the night,” the chief said. “We’re glad everybody is okay. They spent the night in a motel, and this is a reminder to everybody. We don’t think of carbon monoxide incidents in the summer, but it can happen.”

“The detector started going off in the basement of the home,” said Assistant Chief John Walker, who was among the local fire department members who responded to the call. “She (the mother) went down there to see if it was simply a case of the battery going dead. She put new batteries in, and when it went off again, that’s when she went upstairs, got her kids, and then the alarm went off upstairs, too. So, she called 911.”

The fire department’s equipment registered carbon monoxide levels of between 280 and 300 ppm (parts per million) in the house.

“That’s way, way high,” Walker said. “What happened was they had just gotten done taking baths, and the hot water heater malfunctioned, and there was something wrong with the furnace, too, and the gas was going into the house.”

The detector began going off between 8 and 9 p.m. Thursday. Had there been no detector to alert the family, the parents likely would have put their young kids to bed before turning in themselves later that night.

“It would have not been a good deal,” Walker said. “Eventually, the carbon monoxide would have gotten upstairs through the night, and they probably would have not been here, I’m going to say.

“When we went in the house, the readings were at 120 ppm upstairs already, and as soon as the guys went downstairs, the readings went to 250 up to 300,” he said.

Walker said the main dwelling area of the home was upstairs, and none of the family members had yet begun to experience any effects from the growing levels of carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide is called the “invisible killer” because it’s a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. More than 400 people in the United States die every year from accidental non-fire related carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Center for Disease Control.

“If you have any gas-fired appliances – a water heater, a furnace, a stove that utilizes gas – then you need a carbon monoxide detector in your home,” Draper said. “Carbon monoxide itself almost has a neutral weight, and so it’s not necessarily going to stay down low to the ground, or up high near the ceiling, so you can put the detector anywhere in the home and it will detect high levels.”

The family choosing to not disregard the detector’s warning turned out to be a very wise decision, he said.

“They could have ignored it, but they didn’t,” the chief said.

People experiencing levels of carbon monoxide that are too high will likely experience flu-like symptoms.

“You may get a headache, and your body will begin aching,” Draper said, “and be very tired and lethargic. You’ll feel tired when you shouldn’t be tired. And usually, pets, such as dogs or cats, will show symptoms before people do.”

High level carbon monoxide poisoning results in progressively more severe symptoms, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, including mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, loss of consciousness, and ultimately death.

Symptom severity is related to both the carbon monoxide level and the duration of exposure. For slowly developing residential carbon monoxide problems, according to the commission, occupants and/or physicians can mistake mild to moderate carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms for the flu, which sometimes results in tragic deaths.

For rapidly developing high level carbon monoxide exposures caused by, for example, the use of a generator in a residential space, victims can quickly become mentally confused, and can lose muscle control without having first experienced milder symptoms. They will likely die if not rescued.

“Carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless, and very, very dangerous,” Draper said. “The detectors are not that expensive, and they are a very wise investment.”

“Thank God for the detectors,” Walker said, reflecting on Thursday’s call. “I strongly recommend them. The family did the right thing – she got everybody outside and called 911 right away. I recommended that they go to a motel for the night, because the gas company did show up and they red-tagged the hot water heater and the furnace as being faulty.

“The fire department shut the gas off to the place, and then the gas company locked it up,” he said. “What it does is it makes the owner get somebody (to fix the faulty items), and the gas company has to come back and make sure that everything is fixed to their standard, too, and then they’ll turn the gas back on to the house.”

Thursday’s incident is a reminder that carbon monoxide poisoning can happen anywhere, at any time, Walker said.

“Especially when it’s hot and humid like it’s been lately – the air is heavy, and things don’t vent like they should. We even went on the roof (of the house) to make sure the vent wasn’t plugged by a bird’s nest or something else, and everything was fine,” he said. “The problem was in the basement.”