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COVER- Near-death experience: How a $20 device averted a downtown tragedy

Published April 9, 2009 in issue 0814 of the Hook
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Parental nagging coupled with a near-deadly incident in Blacksburg pushed Cathryn Stauffer to purchase a carbon monoxide detector. Less than two years later, her purchase may have saved nearly a dozen lives.
It was just after 5 o'clock one March morning when a shrill beeping sounded in Cathryn Stauffer's apartment. Located above a trendy wine bar on the Downtown Mall, the apartment is the kind popular among 20-somethings for its proximity to dining, live music, and shopping; it wasn't supposed to be the site of a calamity that could have killed as many as eleven young downtowners.

Stauffer, a dietician at UVA Medical Center, awakened and quickly determined the source of the racket: a detector she'd purchased just a year earlier.

Her parents had been urging the 26-year-old Stauffer to get such a device, but she had waited. What finally led Stauffer to make the purchase was witnessing the outcome of an August 2007 incident at Virginia Tech. A furnace in a Blacksburg apartment complex malfunctioned, poisoning 23 students, and sending several of the most seriously injured to UVA for treatment. 

Still, Stauffer wasn't particularly alarmed by her detector sounding before dawn on March 6.

"At first," she says, "I didn't want to call 911 and make a hullabaloo in case it was a false alarm."

Convinced it was a low-battery alert, she roused herself from bed and reset the detector to see if it was malfunctioning. It continued to sound.

A slightly embarrassed Stauffer decided "just to be safe" to call the police. She dialed the non-emergency number Charlottesville Police Department, and was surprised when a dispatcher promptly alerted the fire department. The danger was all too real.


How safe is the typical home? Most Americans have smoke detectors to alert of a fire, and most have deadbolts to keep out intruders. But neither smoke detector nor deadbolt can protect from one of the deadliest intruders of all: carbon monoxide, also known by its chemical name, CO. Once it gains entrance, it can slaughter an entire household without anyone ever noticing its presence.

But as the neighbors of Stauffer learned early last month, there is a low-cost, effective defense against this silent killer.

Stauffer's apartment is one of six at 401 E. Main Street. And while each of the units above the Enoteca wine bar is equipped-- as required by law-- with landlord-supplied smoke detectors, Stauffer believes she was the only resident in her building with a carbon monoxide detector.

Even as the firefighters arrived and began knocking on residents' doors, Stauffer says, she remained a little embarrassed about waking her neighbors. She shouldn't have been.

According to Charlottesville Fire Department Captain Richard Jones, the danger was immediately apparent to firefighters measuring the CO concentration.

"The numbers in the building were high enough to where, if the fire department would have continued to operate," says Jones, "we would have had to be on self-contained breathing apparatus."

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, carbon monoxide readings below 70 parts per million aren't likely to cause problems, but once they pass that level, effects include headache, fatigue, and nausea. At sustained concentrations above 150 to 200 ppm, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death are possible.

The level in Stauffer's building was measured at 87 ppm, a number that Jones says would likely have kept climbing if Stauffer's alarm hadn't sounded.

Toxicologist Chris Holstege, director of the UVA's Blue Ridge Poison Center, agrees that a dangerous situation could have escalated quickly.

"It could have been devastating if those levels continued to go up," says Holstege, adding that the danger would have increased the longer the residents remained in the toxic environment.

Stauffer says she was planning to sleep for another two hours-- until at least 7:30am before arising for work. Her roommate, who had the day off, was planning to sleep in even longer, potentially leaving both of them, along with up to nine other residents in the building, exposed for hours to climbing levels of the poisonous gas.

It's unknown whether a few more hours would have meant a fatal scenario over Enoteca, but such exposure can have deadly consequences, as the family of one Charlottesville woman learned all too painfully.

In the mid-1980s, Emily Boaz Wilson was living alone in a two-story brick house at 932 Locust Avenue. Over the course of several weeks, her family noticed that she had begun behaving strangely, according to the house's current resident, who purchased the house from Wilson's survivors and who asked not to be identified for fear that her relatives would no longer be willing to sleep in the house.

Wilson, whom the current resident believes was in her 60s, had always been a devoted churchgoer.

"She had been going shopping on Sundays instead of going to church," the resident recalls Wilson's family telling her. Other times, the woman says she was told, Wilson seemed confused.

Within weeks of the onset of the odd behavior, Wilson was found dead at home. While her death didn't initially raise suspicions, it's what happened around the time of the funeral that did.

According to the resident, several members of Wilson's family, in town for the ceremony and staying in the house, suddenly felt sick. They were promptly diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning.

When authorities investigated, they discovered a high level of carbon monoxide inside the house and soon discovered the source: several bricks or other debris had fallen inside the house's antiquated, multi-flue chimney and had blocked ventilation, forcing noxious gases into the house instead of allowing them to vent.

(Today, says the resident's husband, a physician, the flues are clear; and, in addition, the family keeps monoxide detectors on each level of the house.)


While Wilson's death was a dramatic local reminder of the danger, several more recent poisonings have had even more devastating results. In November, a Denver family of four--- parents and their two children, ages 8 and 10--- were found dead in a borrowed vacation home in Aspen, Colorado.

According to various news reports, the cause of the carbon monoxide leak was a disconnected pipe that was supposed to stretch from a boiler to the chimney flue. This month-- four months after the family died-- a Colorado district attorney requested a grand jury investigate whether any criminal charges should be filed.

The Colorado case followed an eerily similar situation nine years ago on Long Island in which, a New York doctor returned home following an overnight shift to discover a carbon monoxide leak had killed two friends, a nanny, as well as his own parents and his two-year-old daughter.

While these accidents made headlines, it was a near tragedy closer to home that, coupled with her parents' warnings, convinced Stauffer she should get a detector.

On August 19, 2007, in an off-campus housing development near Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, a water heater failed and pumped carbon monoxide into the apartments. In all, 23 students were severely sickened, and two of them--- sophomores Kristin Julia and Kirsten Halik--- were hospitalized at UVA medical center in critical condition.

"When I saw that, I said, 'It's so cheap to get a detector," says Stauffer, who was working at the medical center at the time.

Reached by email, Julia--- now finishing her senior year at Tech--- says both she and Halik returned to school, where Julia says her own recovery has not been easy.

"I was the worst injured of all and spent nearly a week in a coma after being flown to UVA Medical Center," she writes. Although she reports she is recovering, Julia says she remains "a long way from where I was before this happened."

While Julia declined to describe the exact long-term effects she suffered, Dr. Holstege says problems with memory are common in those who breathe enough of the gas to lose consciousness.

Julia praises UVA for its proactive response with its own community following the Virginia Tech poisoning, issuing a notice to all its students arriving that week to check their gas connections and get carbon monoxide detectors. And UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says the school remains proactive by ensuring that all residence halls using natural gas heat get equipped with detectors. The school encourages students living off-campus to purchase the devices as well.

Only 15 percent of American homes take that precaution, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which puts the annual American carbon-monoxide death toll at nearly 500 lives.

Such deaths often occur inside boats or near enclosed garages where someone has left a motor running. Tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis died in 1994 when fumes from a pool heater infiltrated the New York guest house where he was sleeping.

More commonly, however, are the dozens of annual deaths after power outages when someone places a portable gasoline-powered generator in an unventilated space such as an attic or a basement. In the recent Downtown Mall case, authorities say it was the number one cause of monoxide deaths: a typical residential heater that malfunctioned.

The building's owner was under no legal obligation to ensure the presence of carbon monoxide detectors. Julia, however, expresses frustration that state legislators, who mandate smoke detectors and annual inspections in rental units, haven't yet made a law requiring carbon monoxide detectors.

One state senator, Democrat John Edwards of Roanoke, sponsored a measure, Senate Bill 853, earlier this year, that would have required detectors in hotels, in fuel-heated rental units, and in apartments attached to carports. After unanimously passing the Virginia Senate, the bill died in a House subcommittee chaired by Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights).

"Virginia is lagging behind many other states and needs to do better," says Julia. "There have been too many other CO injuries before and since mine."

After the death of the Denver family, Colorado passed a detector law, but State Senator and gubernatorial hopeful Creigh Deeds doesn't want any more Virginians to suffer before signing a similar law to make detectors mandatory.

"They're not expensive," says Deeds, who like the 39 other state senators, voted for the Virginia bill. "It just makes sense."

Charlottesville-area Delegates David Toscano and Rob Bell both say they have never been contacted by any constituents seeking carbon monoxide detector legislation, nor have they seen any carbon monoxide bill--- though each expresses a willingness to learn more.

While there's no law requiring them, the local fire departments encourage residents to make the investment, as the devices are widely available with prices on amazon.com, for instance, as low as $20.

Fire Captain Jones is grateful Stauffer made the purchase.

"There's no doubt that it was great that the occupants had that," says Jones. "It possibly saved them from injury or death."

Stauffer's neighbor, 25-year-old Alex Brissette, says he had never before considered the dangers of carbon monoxide. But learning he was potentially saved by his neighbor's device has him considering a purchase of his own.

"It seems like a good idea now, absolutely," he says. "We're all very grateful to Cathryn."

According to city gas engineer Phil Garber, after evacuating Stauffer's building, a city gas technician and building owner Chuck Lewis searched for the source of the monoxide buildup and determined that the rooftop flue for the basement furnace had been covered over in a building renovation.

After shutting off the furnace and clearing the air--- we "quadruple checked" says Jones--- residents were allowed to reenter.

Restoring the flue, according to Garber, is the building owner's responsibility. Although Lewis did not return the Hook's repeated calls for comment, according to Stauffer, residents received a letter from building management the day of the incident expressing concern and assuring them that the problem had been fixed.

Stauffer, who saw the reality of monoxide poisoning up close when the Tech students were taken to UVA, now says she hopes her own brush with carbon monoxide will convince someone else to protect their own home with a detector.

"It was somebody else's news story that made me buy it in the first place," she says. "It's important to pay it forward."

Cathryn Stauffer and her roommate, Ginna Brubaker, would have slept for hours longer in a building that was filling with carbon monoxide. Stauffer's detector alerted the residents.

A furnace flue blockage caused carbon monoxide to leak into the six apartments above Enoteca winebar on the Downtown Mall.

"It could have been devastating," says toxicologist Chris Holstege, head of UVA's Blue Ridge Poison Center.

The apartments above Enoteca are modern, but Cathryn Stauffer believes she was the only resident with a carbon monoxide detector.




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