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Silent killer: Experts warn of risks, symptoms of carbon monoxide following Vergas death

Heating small, confined spaces, like a fish house, can be dangerous and lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, if done so improperly. Robert Williams/Tribune

 DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Known by many as a "silent killer," carbon monoxide, a tasteless, colorless, odorless gas, tends to strike, poisoning victims before they are even aware of what is happening.

"You don't know that you're actually being poisoned with it," says Matthew Massman, a physician assistant with Essentia/St. Mary's-Detroit Lakes. "You just don't know--it overcomes you quickly."

And this time of year, when it gets cold and people are cranking up the gas furnace and spending more time indoors, is a peak time for carbon monoxide poisoning.

A vergas man died of carbon monoxide poisoning Monday, Dec. 19. His wife, who found him and called 911, along with emergency response crew members, were also hospitalized for it, unable to detect the odorless gas as the cause of the man's death until the wife began to show signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.

As for symptoms, those can be misleading as well, as Massman says they can mimic the flu: dull headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision and loss of consciousness.

"The most common complaint we see is a headache," Massman said, who added that as carbon monoxide levels get higher and higher in the blood, it can lead to seizures, and death.

Carbon monoxide binds to red blood cells, making them unable to carry oxygen — and it's not like victims can just get some fresh air and be fine.

"It's not a fast on, fast off (situation)," Massman said, explaining red blood cells live for 120 days, and once it's bound with carbon monoxide and unable to properly carry oxygen, it's bound until it dies off.

"Our treatment is to flood you with oxygen," Massman said, adding that in extreme cases, victims of CO poisoning have to be sent to a hyperbaric chamber, which has a much higher concentration of oxygen. The closest hyperbaric chamber, and the one Essentia in Detroit Lakes sends its patients to, is in Hennepin County — the location the Vergas man's wife and two responding EMS workers were airlifted to.

These incidents are not uncommon, causing 30,000 to 40,000 emergency room visits per year, and leading to 500 unintentional deaths in the U.S. As for Essentia, they see about one to two cases per month.

"We screen a lot more people for it," Massman said, since it can be so difficult to tell if a person is suffering from CO poisoning or another illness.

"We have usually one of these bad cases a year," he said.

As for how long it takes for carbon monoxide to injure or kill, Massman says "it's highly variable," depending on the level the gas is being released at and how big the space is.

"There could be a crack in your furnace, and you can be slowly poisoned over time," he said. "Then all of a sudden, you wake up with this headache." Massman says if everyone in a house is having the same symptoms, or everyone wakes up with a headache, that's a pretty good indicator of a carbon monoxide leak--and it's definitely worth checking out.

He says if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning get out of the house and get to a doctor.

As for preventing carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to stay warm, Massman says CO detectors work wonders.

"Have a carbon monoxide detector on every level of your house," he said, adding that taking one with on ice fishing trips is a good idea too. "Those spaces are so enclosed. It doesn't take a lot of carbon monoxide...and you aren't going to be able to detect it any other way."

Massman said it's a good idea to just have a detector wherever an engine is running, like in a garage, and to make sure the area is well-vented--never run the car with the garage door shut. It's a good idea to also back the car out of the garage at least part way to avoid carbon monoxide lingering in the garage and possibly up into a second story above it.

"It's (also) things that we don't think about," Massman said. In one case, he said a family had been poisoned because a furnace had been plugged up with a bird's nest.

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