After deaths, officials warn of carbon monoxide dangers

Carbon monoxide detectors
Carbon monoxide alarms on display in a Home Depot store.
Tim Boyle / Getty Images

The death of a father and daughter from carbon monoxide poisoning has prompted a warning from Minnesota health and safety officials.

Authorities say the bodies of Michael Mechley, 39, and Charlene Mechley, 11, were found Wednesday. Both were exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide in their camper in Rice Lake Township.

To guard against such tragedies, homeowners should test all carbon monoxide alarms monthly and have their heating units professionally inspected every fall, said Bruce West, a state fire marshal.

West said carbon monoxide poisoning often occurs in December. During the winter season, he said, snow drifts can block heating vents and many Minnesotans treat their homes against bitter weather, sealing them.

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That can render leaks in gas-burning stoves or furnaces potentially lethal if the spread of the odorless, tasteless and invisible gas goes undetected.

"You're going to have that carbon monoxide that should be simply going up either up the vertical or horizontal vent can now seep[ing] into the room," West said. "It'll start in your furnace room, it'll start going through the home and again — it's odorless. You're not going to smell that."

Winter visits to icehouses and cabins also can become dangerous if owners start up furnaces, propane heaters, grills and wood fires in enclosed spaces, said Bjorn Westgard, an emergency physician at Regions Hospital and a hyperbaric medicine specialist.

Last year, 18 people in Minnesota died of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. This year, the state's major medical institutions already have seen 100 or more cases, Westgard said.

Carbon monoxide interferes with the delivery of oxygen throughout the body, which can provoke symptoms like headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness, he said.

Anyone who believes they may have been poisoned by the gas should immediately call 911 as extreme, untreated cases can lead to brain or heart injuries, Westgard said.

A Minnesota state law requires detectors within 10 feet of every bedroom, and is named after Hannah Griggs, a three-year-old girl who died in 2004 from carbon monoxide poisoning after the furnace in her house malfunctioned while she and her family were sleeping.

Her mother, Melissa Griggs, who helped lobby the detector mandate bill, said that at the time their home was weather stripped and without a carbon monoxide detector.

"I find the winter season very difficult. I know that people are buckling up and putting in extra weather stripping, covering windows and doing things like that, and ... that can prevent air coming in," she said. "[But] that's how your home breathes, that's how your home gets fresh air."