Regulars and Shorts

Carbon Monoxide

By Charlotte Bell

Being Mr. Mosier
by Charlotte Bell

I remember almost nothing of my eighth grade science class. The teacher, Mr. Mosier, appears to me only as a vague outline—a mild-mannered older guy in a cardigan sweater. The one thing I do recall from his class is indelibly written into my psyche. Mr. Mosier was passionate about making sure his students knew about the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO).

“It’s the silent killer,” he would say. You can’t smell it, see it or feel it, usually until it’s too late. He spoke repeatedly about its insidious invisibility, and how entire families had passed away in their sleep while unknowingly breathing it. I took his admonitions very seriously, so much so that as an adult I have always had a CO detector in my home.

Other people’s science teachers must be doing an equally good job. Out of 317 million people in the U.S. only 400 die each year from CO poisoning; another 20,000 are treated for CO-related illness. Last November 42 students and teachers from Montezuma Elementary were hospitalized due to CO inhalation when the school’s boiler failed.

In mid-March a cherished friend and colleague fell victim to the silent killer. Sometime during the day before her passing, her boiler’s flue inexplicably closed. The boiler had a backup system designed to protect against a buildup of the poison gas, but in the early morning while she slept, that system failed. An eight-inch concrete block wall between her bedroom and the furnace room didn’t protect her. She didn’t hear the alarms of CO detectors in other parts of the house. An eight-hour power outage earlier that day had cooled the home to the point that when the power resumed, the boiler had to run much longer than usual, spewing its toxic fumes all the while. It was, as her husband described it, a horrible but perfect storm. These were people who had taken the proper precautions, yet the insidious gas still permeated the house and, eventually, her blood cells.

CO poisoning is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms—head­ache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion —occur in so many other conditions (like dehydration—see p. 12). In CO poisoning, these symptoms can lead to loss of consciousness and death. If you and others in your space begin experiencing these symptoms, call 911, open windows and move outdoors immediately.

My first reaction to my friend’s passing was shock at the inexplicable loss of this beautiful, vibrant, compassionate being. My heart will be heavy about this for a long time. My second reaction was to head to the hardware store and pick up two new combination smoke alarm/CO detectors to replace an old one that still appeared to be working, but expired in 2008. Immediately after installing new detectors, I emailed my students, friends and family to remind them to do the same. My hope is that this story will remind CATALYST readers and beyond.

I feel a bit like Mr. Mosier in my zeal to inform people how to guard themselves against carbon monoxide poisoning. At best, this is what teachers, friends, colleagues and family are for, to look after each other’s health and happiness. Wherever Mr. Mosier is, I hope he feels my gratitude. u

This article was originally published on May 31, 2014.