The silent killer hits home: Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning | SierraSun.com

The silent killer hits home: Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning

Cory Fisher
Special to the Sierra Sun

A Nevada City woman who recently lost her father and his partner to carbon monoxide poisoning is now making it her mission to warn others of the potential dangers.

On Nov. 17, Jennifer Winders received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. The bodies of her father, Ed Winders, and his partner of 15 years, Barbara Moller, had been found in an apartment the couple had booked online.

The pair, both 76, shared a longtime love of Mexican culture and were in the process of searching for a winter home in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico's central highlands. The American landlord discovered the couple after not hearing from them for an extended period of time, Winders said. Autopsies confirmed their deaths were a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, and authorities suspect it was a poorly ventilated heater.

Still in shock, just hours after the initial phone call, Winders and her brother Eric, who lives in Santa Cruz, suddenly found themselves booking flights to Mexico to meet with Mexican police and take care of details related to the couple's deaths.

Now back in Nevada City, Winders, who works with Nevada County Public Health as an adolescent social worker, said she feels the urgent need to educate others on the potential dangers of what has been deemed "the silent killer."

"It's hard to be out there publicly when we're still in shock, but it feels critical to my brother and me that we do what we can to prevent future deaths," she said. "I guess for us it's a healing way to channel the grief — and because we know that's what our father and Barbara would have wanted."

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VITAL STATS

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States a total of 2,244 deaths resulted from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning between 2010 and 2015, with the highest numbers each year occurring during winter months.

In 2015, of the 393 deaths that resulted from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, 36 percent occurred in December, January, or February.

PREVENTION

"Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas, that's why it's critical to have a detector in your home, and they're now required," said Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Fire Marshal Terry McMahan. "The most common symptoms are shortness of breath, confusion, dizziness, headaches, nausea and flu-like symptoms, which could lead to death."

According to the CDC, carbon monoxide, also known as CO, is found in fumes produced any time a person burns fuel in cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces and gas appliances such furnaces, refrigerators or water heaters. Carbon monoxide can build up indoors and poison people and animals who breathe it.

Individuals who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from carbon monoxide poisoning even before they experience any symptoms.

TRAVEL PRECAUTIONS

"There's this assumed level of safety for anyone traveling and booking a room," said Winders. "We need to challenge these assumptions and advocate for safety standards for vacation rentals. Check with the hotel or the person you're renting from to see if they have a carbon monoxide detector. Or better yet, bring your own. It's scary, because by the time anyone might notice something unusual, it may be too late — they might be about to lose consciousness.

"Many people in older houses don't have detectors and installing one could save a life."

Everyone is at risk for CO poisoning, cites the CDC, however infants, the elderly, people with chronic heart disease, anemia, or breathing problems are more likely to get sick.

Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning not linked to fires. More than 20,000 visit the emergency room, and more than 4,000 are hospitalized.

"Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that can kill," said Nevada County Health and Human Services public health director Jill Blake. "California law requires the installation of approved detectors in single-family dwellings, and other states have similar laws; these laws are all in place to ensure our health and safety. Excess amounts of carbon monoxide can easily be detected. As homeowners, we can install the detectors to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Landlords can do the same to protect their tenants."

While friends have set up an online GoFundMe account to help the two families cover funeral expenses and possible legal fees, Winders did not want the link to the site to be included in this story. The emphasis of the piece, she said, should be to save future lives.

LEAVING BEHIND A LEGACY

The loss of Barbara Moller and Ed Winders will be felt internationally. Based in New Orleans, the couple devoted the latter part of their lives to humanitarian projects, most notably founding the nonprofit Voices for Global Change, which supports groups marginalized from the economic and political life of their communities and countries.

One of their better known endeavors is the Paper to Pearls project in Northern Uganda, where beads are made from recycled paper and sold by impoverished families who are forced into camps due to ongoing armed rebellion.

Additionally, Ed Winders was a well-known public policy expert focusing on legislative reform and political party development. His hands-on work and passion for spreading democracy has impacted elections from South Africa to Indonesia.

"Their legacy will be the amazing work they did in the world advocating for humanity," said Jen Winders. "But hopefully the circumstances surrounding their deaths can be used as some kind of platform for public health awareness, education and policy change. It's hard to be sitting here in a place of grief, dealing with seemingly preventable deaths."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning?

The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. CO symptoms are often described as “flu-like.”

What should I do if my carbon monoxide detector alarm goes off?

Open all windows to get air ventilation. Turn off any appliances such as your gas-fired furnace or a running generator. After the home has been ventilation, reset the carbon monoxide detectors. If the detectors do not sound again, call the fire department and a qualified technician to inspect and repair any problem.

For more information, visit the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/co/faqs.htm.

HOW TO PREVENT POISONING

How can I prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in my home?

Install a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide (CO) detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Place your detector where it will wake you up if it alarms, such as outside your bedroom. Replace your detector every five years.

Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.

Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors.

If you smell an odor from your gas refrigerator have an expert service it. An odor from your gas refrigerator can mean it could be leaking CO.

Make sure your gas appliances are vented properly. Horizontal vent pipes for appliances, such as a water heater, should go up slightly as they go toward outdoors, as shown below. This prevents CO from leaking if the joints or pipes aren’t fitted tightly.

Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year. Chimneys can be blocked by debris. This can cause CO to build up inside your home or cabin.

Never patch a vent pipe with tape, gum, or something else. This kind of patch can make CO build up in your home, cabin, or camper.

Never use a gas range or oven for heating.

Never burn charcoal indoors.

Never use a portable gas camp stove indoors.

Never use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage or less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent.

When using a generator, use a battery-powered or battery backup CO detector in your home.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention