Homes are required to have CO detectors

Published 8:52 am Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cheryl Burt of Rochester will never forget the night almost 13 years ago when the furnace malfunctioned while her family slept in their new home near St. Cloud.

Cheryl, her husband and their 5-year-old son suffered severe carbon monoxide poisoning. But their 16-month-old son, Zachary, and four-year-old son, Nicholas, did not survive.

Since this tragedy, Cheryl has turned her private grief into a public crusade to warn all of us about the deadly dangers of carbon monoxide.

Email newsletter signup

Known as “the silent killer,” carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless, poisonous gas. The deadly fumes result from inefficient combustion which can originate from furnaces, water heaters or gas stoves. The gas can be trapped inside by a blocked chimney or flue.

Other threats include running a car engine in an attached garage, burning charcoal in the house or operating a gas-powered generator in a confined space.

About 500 people die each year in America due to accidental CO poisoning. Another 15,000 people end up in the emergency room. Children are especially vulnerable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 73 Minnesotans died of accidental CO poisoning between 1999 and 2004.

Although CO poisoning can happen anytime during the year, the peak months are November through February.

In Minnesota, it’s not just a good idea to have CO alarms in your home. It’s also the law. As of Aug. 1, all homes in the state are required to have working CO alarms.

A properly-installed alarm is the final line of defense against CO poisoning. But the first line of defense is always prevention, which includes making sure your furnace and all fuel-burning appliances operate properly and are used only according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

There is still more that we can do to protect against CO risks.

That’s why I have introduced federal legislation that would require the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to implement stronger safety standards.

Co-sponsored with Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, it is called the Residential Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act. It includes two key provisions.

First, it would enforce minimum safety standards for CO alarms. Currently, the commission has voluntary standards for these alarms, which are set by Underwriters Laboratories. The legislation would make these standards mandatory for all CO alarms sold in the United States.

This is especially important in Minnesota, because substandard alarms tend to fail in low humidity condition like our state’s very cold, dry winters.

Second, the legislation would require that every portable generator sold in the U.S. be equipped with safety features like a built-in CO detector and an automatic shut-off. It would also require prominent warning labels.

In recent years, CO deaths caused by generators have been on the increase. It often happens after natural disasters like hurricanes or ice storms, when a power outage tempts people to use generators in their homes.

Just a few weeks ago, two men and a boy died in a Minnesota home from CO poisoning due to the use of a portable generator. With the economy the way it is, there could be more incidents like this.

When someone dies from accidental CO poisoning, it is not just a private tragedy. It is a public tragedy, too, because we know it could have been prevented with better safeguards.

As a prosecutor, I was always frustrated that, by the time a case got to my office, the crime had already been committed and the damage done. I knew the best way to protect public safety was to prevent crime in the first place.

The same principle is true for consumer safety. As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee overseeing the Consumer Product Safety Commission, I am in a new position to protect families and help prevent unnecessary harm to innocent people.

We have already succeeded with safer swimming pool standards and stronger toy safety laws, including an effective ban on lead in children’s products.

CO poisoning is another area where smarter consumer safety laws can make a real difference.

I do not want to see anyone else go through what Cheryl Burt’s family did. None of us do. With better safety standards and greater public awareness, we can literally save lives.

Amy Klobuchar represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.