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Carbon Monoxide Deaths Prompt Warnings

An improperly used propane heater is believed to have caused the deaths of two adults and one child at a Pensacola residence on Thursday. That’s prompting reminders about the dangers of carbon monoxide.

When emergency responders arrived at the residence, Pensacola Fire Marshal David Allen says it appeared to be the carbon monoxide poisoning of nine-year-old Jaylen Sunday, who was outside with the adult male who called 911. 

Jaylen is listed in stable condition at Sacred Heart Hospital. The victims found inside the house are identified as 52-year-old Bridget Sunday; 54-year-old Clarence Nettles, and four-year-old Tony Taylor Jr. Jimmie Sunday, who made the emergency call, was awakened by the fumes. He did not require treatment.

There’s no indication of foul play. Autopsy results are not expected back for several weeks.

“The apparent cause was the use of a propane-fired space heater,” said Allen. “The box actually stated ‘For indoor or outdoor construction use,’ in well-ventilated areas and not in living areas. However, it’s a little misleading because the very first line on the box says ‘indoor-outdoor.’”

Since you can’t see it, taste it or smell it – and it doesn’t irritate body tissue -- carbon monoxide is called “The Silent Killer.”

“Carbon monoxide displaces oxygen off of our red blood cells,” said Dr. Tim Rak, the Director of Emergency Medicine at Sacred Heart Hospital. “Red blood cells’ job is to carry oxygen throughout the body. Carbon monoxide gets into your system and it sits on that red blood cell so you don’t get any oxygen to your tissues.”

Symptoms of CO poisoning can include headache, vomiting, nausea, and fatigue. The longer the exposure, the more severe the symptoms. But Rak says pretty much everyone – smokers, for example – are exposed to the gas in some way, shape or form. 

When someone who’s overcome by carbon monoxide is brought to the emergency room, there’s only one effective treatment.

“Oxygen, oxygen, and oxygen; and it’s high-flow oxygen,” said Rak. “It takes about 320 minutes to bring your carbon monoxide level back down in just normal air. If we put you on 100% oxygen I can get you down in 80 minutes. If I put you on hyperbaric oxygen, 20 minutes.”

CO poisoning, says Dr. Tim Rak, is basically like drowning. And survivors can experience some long-term health issues.

“Delirium, patients can get hallucinations, unsteady gait, confusion, depression,” Rak said. “Long-term it can cause people to have heart problems the rest of their life, kidney failure. It’s a pretty terrible poisoning.”

Pensacola Fire Marshal David Allen says there are usually a couple of heater-related deaths in the area each winter -- but carbon monoxide is a year-round threat. And Allen says given the invisibility of the gas, there’s only one tried-and-true way to detect CO levels before they become toxic.

“With a carbon monoxide smoke alarm,” said Allen. “Anything other than electricity, any type of fuel that’s being burned inside the house for cooking, drying clothes or heating can produce carbon monoxide, and therefore be dangerous.”

For more information about carbon monoxide and how to use natural gas safely, visit www.pensacolaenergy.com.