Sarita Hartz Hendricksen: Carbon monoxide, a dangerous issue that hit close to home

Sarita Hartz Hendricksen
Guest column

Two days after Thanksgiving, we arrived home to Incline Village to a beeping noise. After a long day of travel in wintry conditions, towing our baby, chihuahua and bags inside, we were exhausted.

We finally discovered it was the carbon monoxide detector. In our tired state, we counted the beeps to be three which was supposed to be a “malfunction.” We reset it thinking, like a smoke detector it would go off again if there was a serious issue. It didn’t.

It was Saturday night and our property management office wasn’t open. This was the only detector we were provided.

We had left a heating repairman in our home four days earlier, fixing a ducting issue, so we assumed he was testing something and it was a coincidence.

We didn’t know it would spiral into a nightmare over the next few days.

We are recent residents to the North Lake Tahoe region. We were unaware of the unique and challenging dangers of carbon monoxide in our area due to snow accumulation on roofs that can block furnace exhaust flues, or negligence on proper maintenance due to many homes being vacation rentals.

Actress Anna Faris had a similar scare recently when members of her family got carbon monoxide poisoning in a Tahoe vacation rental.

We also didn’t know we were supposed to have outside an air vent in our furnace room to allow combustible air flow to our furnace. In 75% of cases, furnaces are the main culprit of a CO build up.

On Monday, the CO alarm went off again. This time it made four beeps, which meant it was detecting CO. I called our landlord and they told me to pack a few things and evacuate just to be safe and they would call back the same repairman. In retrospect, I should have evacuated and called 911 so the fire department could come.

Panicked, my breath coming fast, I ran downstairs to the room where my infant son was sleeping. My heart sank when I realized his room was right next to the furnace room. I threw open doors and windows to allow air in, hoping this would help as I packed. When I exited the bedroom next to the furnace room, I had a bad headache.

Research shows that by the time you are symptomatic, you could have been exposed to levels of 400 ppm or higher as most CO detectors go off anywhere between 150-400ppm, which can kill you within two hours.

With carbon monoxide, it can be misconstrued because it often presents like the flu.

The fire chief in Incline said levels as low as 9 ppm over an 8-hour period can have lasting damaging effects on your health. This is especially true of children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

Long term effects can range from neurological issues, brain damage, memory loss, hearing loss in infants, to depression and anxiety.

In retrospect, I realized some of the symptoms we’d been experiencing could have been CO related. My infant son had been fussy, lethargic, having sinus issues and stumbling around a bit. I’d been having headaches and feeling a little dizzy when I stood up. We’d all slept in an extra two hours that morning which was completely unlike us.

Five hours later, the leak was confirmed. We rushed our infant son to the emergency room. This was his first visit. They held him down and pushed a needle into his arm to get a vial of blood for a carboxyhemoglobin test. My little boy was screaming and I was crying. We then had to wait an hour for results.

Traumatized, we tried to occupy him as he got oxygen. Sadly, he did have elevated levels of CO in his blood.

Now, when my son cries or stumbles and falls, I wonder if this could be related to the CO exposure.

As a mother, this has been deeply troubling for me that I wasn’t educated enough about this issue to adequately protect my son and that many homes in Incline Village are simply not up to code. The nightmare isn’t over for us. My son will have to undergo more invasive testing with a specialist.

A second HVAC company determined the source of the leak: It was a cracked heat exchanger in the 28-year-old furnace of our rental. In our case, this was most likely caused by improper maintenance and lack of adequate combustible air venting.

Two days later, our one detector died, leaving us grateful at our near brush with death. We were glad we had recently bought five Nest detectors.

We are so grateful to have survived, but are hoping our story can help save other families.

Sarita Hartz Hendricksen is an Incline Village resident.

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