SANDPOINT — A matter of minutes may have saved the life of Lake Pend Oreille school board member Mindy Cameron and her husband Bill Berg this week.
The couple entered their Sagle home Sunday night after a three-day trip and found nothing amiss. Even so, an invisible, odorless killer hung in the air — at some point over the weekend, their house had filled up with carbon monoxide.
It only took about 30 minutes for Cameron to pass out from the toxic gas. Berg followed minutes later while on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. The short window of time allowed for an emergency call that, in all likelihood, saved their lives.
“Thinking back over it, it was quite a frightening experience,” Cameron said.
Thanks to Sagle emergency crews, Cameron and Berg were recovered safely from their home, revived and transported to Bonner General Hospital. After an evening in the hospital on oxygen, the couple was ready to return home by late morning.
Emergency personnel had taken care to ventilate the home and shut off the valves in the mechanical room. Sagle firefighters had also left a present on the kitchen counter — a carbon monoxide detector.
The experience was a narrow brush with one of the world’s most insidious killers. Carbon monoxide is undetectable by human senses — colorless, odorless and tasteless. It can quickly fill an enclosed space with dangerous volumes of deadly gas, often as a result of heating system malfunctions or leaving a car running in a garage. In this case, Cameron said it appeared that a loose PVC pipe in the house’s heating ventilation system was the culprit.
According to Sagle Fire District Captain Ron Reed, the most dangerous season for carbon monoxide-related deaths has just begun.
“This is the time of year to watch out because houses are shut up and heating systems are turned on,” he said.
All it takes is one oversight for tragedy to strike, particularly in homes heated through wood stoves or gas furnaces. Reed said it’s important to keep chimneys cleaned and homes and gas appliances inspected by a professional. Those who live inside a fire district can call up their fire department to request an inspection.
The best defense against carbon monoxide is a simple detector. Reed said Sagle Fire District personnel will give these devices away and install them for free when they have spares in stock. Otherwise, they’re commonly available at any appliance store, often for $20 or less. In addition to residences, it’s also a very good idea to have a detector on hand in campers, boats and other recreational vehicles.
During the winter months, also remain conscious of carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms. Headaches, dizziness, fatigue and nausea or flu-like symptoms are all common signs of early poisoning stages.
Fortunately, Sagle Fire District has secured a 2012 Idaho Firefighters License Plate Grant, which will allow firefighters to perform an education campaign in local schools about carbon monoxide and other common dangers at home.
As for Cameron and Berg, they plan to spend Thanksgiving Day — and every other day — feeling very thankful indeed.