August – Avoid the silent killer and get a carbon monoxide alarm

Written by Communications, August 13, 2019

Manitobans must be breathing a sigh of relief: last month, 46 people were poisoned by carbon monoxide at a Winnipeg motel. Thanks to an alarm in a boiler room, they were rescued and no one died. It was a near-miss. Media reported carbon monoxide levels close to 400 parts per million. This was a tragedy that almost happened. Should we be concerned that it could have happened here in Peterborough?

On average, more than 300 Canadians die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning. Since 2013, Ontario has mandated the installation of carbon monoxide alarms in any residence with a fuel burning appliance, like a gas furnace or water heater, a fireplace or an attached garage. They must be located adjacent to any sleeping area. Home owners or landlords are responsible for compliance, and the existing legislation applies to hotels and motels as well. All new homes will have them installed already. It is recommended that they be tested monthly.

The changes that were made to Ontario legislation in 2014 were as a result of the 2013 Hawkins-Gignac Act, named to honour the OPP constable Laurie Hawkins and her family who were killed in 2008 from carbon monoxide poisoning in their Woodstock home, caused from a blocked chimney. The legislation amended the fire and building codes to make carbon monoxide alarms mandatory. Despite the law, people in Ontario continue to die, with most deaths related to home exposures. And near misses occur. In 2018, eight people from one home in Peel Region were assessed in hospital after reporting multiple symptoms, including vomiting.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a deadly odourless and colourless gas. It is usually associated with the fumes from burning fuel in some type of engine, a car, a small engine, a boiler, a gas furnace, or a grill. The gas can build up, particularly indoors, and be the source of a poisoning of multiple people. At doses of 200 parts per million, a person may experience headaches or dizziness or faint after a two hour exposure. At higher levels, the gas can overcome a person with little or no warning. Furthermore, those with heart or lung disease may be at more risk of collapsing. Generally, if provided fresh breathing air in a timely manner, the affected individual can recover.

In the Manitoba example, just a three-hour exposure to the level reported could have been fatal. Manitoba has made carbon monoxide alarms mandatory in any new home built after 2011 but not in older homes. Also included in their existing legislation are buildings that require regular fire safety inspections, such as restaurants, hospitals, day cares and hotels/motels.

So, we have better protection, on paper at least, here in Ontario – but does that translate into actual protection in the places we need it? True confessions here – my own home has only one alarm, placed near the bedrooms where family usually stay when they visit. I am not sure why we don’t have one near our bedroom – but the events in Manitoba have served as a wake-up call and by the time this column appears, I will be in full compliance.

How about you – are you protected? Do you have an alarm and are you certain it is operating? Did you know they have an expiry date and need to be replaced regularly? If you are a tenant, it is your landlord’s responsibility. But if you own your home, it’s up to you to make sure you and your loved ones are protected from this silent killer.