Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tragedy Puts Focus on Faulty Heaters Tennis Star's Death Brings Awareness of Hazard

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tragedy Puts Focus on Faulty Heaters Tennis Star's Death Brings Awareness of Hazard

Article excerpt

1994, New York Times News Service VITAS GERULAITIS was not the first person to die from carbon monoxide from a faulty heater, but his celebrity status has focused attention on the problem.

At least 250 people are fatally poisoned this way every year, reports the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and 5,000 or so more suffer injuries, some of them permanent.

Propane equipment was the apparent villain in the death of the former tennis star in a cottage in Southampton, N.Y. It is a common cause, along with natural gas heating systems, but oil furnaces and even wood stoves can be deadly.

"Anything that has a combustion process is capable of providing carbon monoxide," said B.W. Ward, the manager of technical services at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, known as ASHRAE. The key, Ward and others said, is proper installation and maintenance.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced when a fuel is burned without enough oxygen on hand. Carbon atoms in the fuel that normally join up with two oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide, which is harmless, end up instead with only one oxygen atom. Absorbed through the lungs, carbon monoxide latches onto hemoglobin, the molecule in blood that normally shuttles oxygen to the cells, and refuses to let go.

When 25 percent of the hemoglobin has absorbed carbon monoxide, serious headache and nausea set in; at 50 percent, many victims are dead.

In every winter cold snap, there are nearly always a few people who die from carbon monoxide poisoning, most often from faulty space heaters.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been moving toward requiring carbon monoxide detectors in newly built homes, an idea that divides experts in the field. But the commission and others who have studied the problem agree that the toll is far too high.

The best defense, experts say, is annual inspection by a heating contractor or a technician from the local gas utility. Inspectors can spot flaws by sight and use hand-held sniffers to detect carbon monoxide, said Joseph F. Hilyard, a spokesman for the Gas Research Institute in Chicago. Any heating unit can go bad, but when that happens, systems that use forced hot air are the most dangerous, because the air ducts distribute the carbon monoxide.

Some engineers say gas units are in general somewhat more prone to kill without warning, because oil smoke is more visible and acrid and the residents of a house are more likely to smell a problem in time to take action. Still, even an oil furnace can kill a sleeping family.

The presence of carbon monoxide in the living area means that exhaust gas from the heater is leaking in. In a forced-air system, it may be because of a leak in the plenum, essentially a metal box that is heated by the flames. Clean air is pumped through the plenum to be warmed and then through ducts around the house, but if there is a hole, the air can be contaminated. …

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