Invisible killer Carbon monoxide poisoning: Incidents highlight need for detectors, especially in winter.

February 14, 1996

A TENNIS LEGEND, Vitas Gerulaitis had shown childhood friend John McEnroe the ropes and at one time was ranked third in the world. But in 1994, at age 40, he was found dead at a friend's Long Island, N.Y., home. Police attributed his death to faulty installation of a propane heater, which allowed carbon monoxide to seep into the house at lethal levels.

Just days ago, fumes from a similar propane heater forced two evacuations in Westminster. A woman and her four children were tested for possible carbon monoxide poisoning last week, then 16 people were hospitalized early Sunday. A similar mishap in Howard County put five people in the hospital earlier this month.

Freak occurrences? Hardly. Nationwide, carbon monoxide poisonings lead to 10,000 deaths a year. Many of the symptoms of such poisoning -- fatigue, upset stomach, headaches -- are mild and may go unnoticed. The problem is especially common during the winter months. "It is a big, big problem. People need to be aware that this is a potential killer," said Chris Hawley, a hazardous-materials specialist who responded to the Westminster emergency.

Any time a heating unit malfunctions or heating vents are blocked, carbon monoxide can be produced. The odorless, colorless gas can also build up when chimneys are clogged, cars are left running in an enclosed garage, charcoal grills are used indoors or operating furnaces are cracked or loose. Fire education specialists advise that homeowners have chimneys cleaned and furnaces checked.

Carbon monoxide detectors have been the main indicator for many families that a problem existed. They are sold at most hardware stores for $25 to $45. BGE spokeswoman Peggy Mulloy said any home heated by a fossil fuel such as oil, gas or even wood should be equipped with such a device. She estimated that perhaps two deaths in this area each winter are due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Unfortunately, carbon monoxide levels can reach dangerous levels at untimely hours. People who go to sleep with headaches or upset stomachs, and without detectors, are literally not conscious of the dangers to which they are being exposed. Because high carbon monoxide levels can be life-threatening after only three hours, the danger should not be ignored.

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