Recent Utah carbon monoxide scares are an important reminder to get furnaces checked
Jan 8, 2024, 6:46 PM | Updated: Jan 9, 2024, 6:00 am
SANDY — After a series of carbon monoxide scares in Utah the last few weeks, awareness and concern are growing as temperatures drop and furnaces are on full blast.
In the latest incident, Sandy police said 30 people were evacuated Sunday morning after firefighters discovered unsafe CO levels inside a grocery store. Firefighters who were at the store said an employee asked them about an unusual smell. Otherwise, they would have left the store and the situation could have been very bad for shoppers and employees.
A gas monitor showed CO levels at 80 parts per million — more than double where the firefighters monitor alarm signals. There were no complaints of illness or injuries. Furnaces were shut down and exhaust vents were cleared and the maintenance team identified a cracked heat exchanger.
Dr. Lindell Weaver is Intermountain Health’s medical director of hyperbaric medicine at Intermountain Medical Center and Intermountain LDS Hospital. He specializes in treating carbon monoxide poisoning and said the number of recent cases is much higher than is typical.
“In general we treat one patient per week, on average about 50 per year,” he said. “In the last two months or so just right before Thanksgiving, us, Utah Valley and St. George, we’ve treated over 100 patients poisoned by carbon monoxide.”
In the case of the grocery store, he said people would need to be exposed to gas for hours before the symptoms showed up, though smaller children, pets and people with some conditions are more at risk. Children have less blood and breathe faster so they take carbon monoxide up more quickly he said.
“You or I could be exposed to 80 parts per million for five seconds and we would never know we were exposed,” Weaver said. “However, if we multiply 80 by hours of time that allows carbon monoxide to build up in the blood, and indeed most people would have symptoms from that level.”
Physicians can’t always help everyone who gets carbon monoxide poisoning.
“There are people even with hyperbaric oxygen who are going to develop problems, mostly with brain injury,” he said.
State Fire Marshal Ted Black said the poisonings are a concern, but all the facts are needed before action can be taken. Fire alarms are required in commercial buildings, but carbon monoxide detectors are not.
“Obviously, these are a concern and we’re looking into all of these, but we need to make sure we have all the facts before we take any reaction,” Black said.
He said a building’s systems for heat don’t run on their own and do require maintenance. In Utah, CO detectors are required in new buildings where there are residential, institutional and educational occupancies.
Black said investigations will continue before any changes are possibly proposed to Utah law.
“We look at codes in Utah regularly,” Black said. “You have to justify the adoption of new codes and you have to prove there’s a cost benefit to the citizens of Utah.”
Black said, of the new code bills he’s seen, none include a carbon monoxide requirement. He said they need to understand what caused each instance of carbon monoxide poisoning before going to lawmakers.
“Nothing is done haphazard,” He said. “If we determine that more work needs to be work in this area, the research will be done, the presentation will be made to the state legislature.”
He said commercial detection systems are expensive.
“We could ensure safety on every freeway if we made people drive 20 miles an hour on the freeway,” Black said as an example. “There’d be no more accidents, no more deaths. Do you really want to drive 20 miles an hour on the freeway, or is 70 miles an acceptable level of risk?”
Black said it’s important he and the state are prudent in their decision-making.
“We can ensure that this will never happen again but someone has to pay for it so we want to be really careful that we don’t swing the pendulum too far the other way, but that we still provide an acceptable level of risk for the public,” he said.
Weaver and Black said the leaks are an important reminder to regularly check alarms and furnaces at home.
“I think people really don’t give this much thought sometimes,” Weaver said. “They go about their business and folks are busy, don’t really think about it, or they put off ‘Oh I’ll look at the furnace next year’ or something. Really everybody should be somewhat thoughtful about carbon monoxide or carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, confusion, ringing in the ears and unclear thinking.