Silent, invisible threat keeps Toronto firefighters on the road

Toronto firefighters say they answered nearly 10 carbon monoxide emergency calls a day last year.

Carbon monoxide is a gas produced by burning fossil fuels. Home appliances – such as furnaces, clothes dryers and space heaters that run on wood, gas, coal or oil – produce the gas. Captain Mike Strapko, of Toronto Fire Services, said that carbon monoxide exposure is the leading cause of accidental poisoning death in North America.

“The carbon monoxide suffocates you because it deprives your body of the oxygen,” Strapko said.

Infants and the elderly are more susceptible to the colourless, tasteless and odourless threat of carbon monoxide. The accidental death of a Markham senior on Feb. 1 from carbon monoxide poisoning, brought to light the hidden dangers in the home.

Toxicologists, including Greg Johnstone of Integrated Safety Systems in Nova Scotia, study the effects of poison exposure on the body.

“Young infants in the presence of smoking parents or an inefficient furnace are at risk,” Johnstone said, “as well as elderly people who have their system compromised for one reason or another.”

Johnstone suggested that the competition between carbon monoxide and oxygen in the air can ultimately lead to suffocation. But he said it doesn’t happen immediately.

“It’s not something like chlorine gas or cyanide where it’s going to knock you out in 15 or 30 seconds” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that builds up over a number of minutes or hours depending on the concentration.”

Johnstone suggested that the correct placement of life safety equipment such as carbon monoxide detectors can provide early detection. He said that detectors placed close to the source (furnace), as well as close to the bedrooms of infants and the elderly, delivered the most comprehensive coverage.

Strapko agreed with Johnstone and said the Fire Services recommendation for detector placement is outside bedrooms. The City of Toronto Carbon Monoxide Detector Bylaw, issued in 1998, requires a minimum of one detector per dwelling with any fuel-burning appliance.

Johnstone also pointed out that the public needs to understand its role in minimizing the danger. In the event of an alarm in the basement, for example, he said that opening windows on the main level of a house and creating ventilation will lessen the carbon monoxide concentration in the air.

“You don’t have to worry that (if the alarm goes off) 60 seconds later you’re going to collapse,” Johnstone said.
Johnstone also warned that if someone has collapsed or is showing signs of distress that the emergency services be notified.

Tips for carbon monoxide protection (source: Toronto Fire Service)

1. Install at least one carbon monoxide detector on each floor of the home especially close to bedrooms.
2. Test the carbon monoxide detector regularly; refer to the operating guide on how to test the alarm.
3. Check the lifespan of the alarm. Alarms do not last forever and it’s important to buy a new one as per the manufacturers guidelines.
4. Have a qualified inspector service all fuel burning appliances, chimneys and vent pipes annually. Blockages can cause carbon monoxide build up.
5. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to the flu at first. Tiredness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headaches and shortness of breath can all suggest carbon monoxide exposure. Call 911 in the event of any of these symptoms.