Carbon monoxide concerns spike in Williston after UVM fatality

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

On Feb. 15, the Williston Fire Department received an emergency call from a house on Butternut Lane. The caller said a carbon monoxide detector had sounded. Firefighters rushed for the scene.

The residents had opened windows and doors after making the emergency call, so some carbon monoxide was expelled from the house before firefighters arrived.

Still, firefighters measured dangerously elevated levels of carbon monoxide in several bedrooms in the house — what Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton called “pocketed spaces.” Prolonged exposure to those levels of carbon monoxide, he said, could have caused illness and potentially death.

Firefighters soon traced the source to multiple problems with a wood furnace. Further investigation revealed that the backup heating source, a propane furnace, was also faulty. Both would need to be repaired.

It was a happy ending to a potential tragedy, Morton said. Serendipitously, the house had only been outfitted with a carbon monoxide detector two days before.

One of the residents’ mothers had been prompted to buy a detector for the home after media reports of a Jan. 30 incident at an apartment building in Burlington in which a carbon monoxide leak led to the death of one man and the hospitalization of seven other people.

Morton said the Burlington death appears to have raised the awareness of Williston residents about the dangers of carbon monoxide. He noted the fire department received a noticeable spike in calls concerning the poisonous gas in the month of February. Some of the calls were benign, he said, the result of edginess from the fatality. Others revealed serious hazards.

Carbon monoxide, sometime called the “silent killer,” is a colorless, odorless gas produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Failure of certain household appliances, like furnaces, can lead to the emission of the gas, whether through poor ventilation or the improper burning of the fuel. Exposure to elevated levels of carbon monoxide can lead to headaches, dizziness, nausea, unconsciousness and death.

In February, Williston fire responded to two incidents in which homes had high levels of carbon monoxide. Morton described both as “extremely dangerous” situations.

One incident was the call on Butternut Lane. In the other incident, a carbon monoxide detector was triggered at an apartment building on Shirley Circle. Elevated levels of carbon monoxide were found in multiple basements in the building, Morton said.

Firefighters evacuated the building, narrowed the problem to a furnace and contacted a Vermont Gas service technician, who made the necessary repairs, Morton said.

“That was actually similar to — though not the same as — the incident (in Burlington),” Morton said.

Morton said the fire department also received a call to do an “assurance” check of carbon monoxide levels in a Williston house. He said a resident of the house had been hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning recently and wanted to check to make sure the house was safe.

Morton said regular maintenance of furnaces is a critical way of preventing carbon monoxide leaks, while carbon monoxide detectors are the best possible protection from the leaks themselves.

Carbon monoxide detectors should be placed near bedrooms and heating appliances in the home, according to the Burlington Fire Department — which Morton cited as the local source on the use of detectors.

State legislators may consider a bill this year that would mandate carbon monoxide detectors in rental homes, newly built houses and old houses that are sold in Vermont. Ginny Lyons, a state senator and member of the Williston Selectboard, said there has been no discussion of developing an ordinance to require detectors in town.

Some carbon monoxide detectors indicate the concentration of the gas in the air. Any consistent reading, even if not elevated, should spur an examination, Morton said.

“Any level of carbon monoxide proves there’s something wrong,” Morton said. “Carbon monoxide doesn’t occur naturally.”

If a detector alarm is activated — or there is any other indication of a carbon monoxide leak — Morton said the fire department should be called and the building promptly evacuated.

Morton said windows and doors should not be opened to ventilate the building. Instead, the building should be left alone “like a crime scene,” giving firefighters and service technicians a chance to locate the source of the leak.