Caution – Mind Your Sensor!
Carbon monoxide detectors expire despite operative power source
The party wound down around midnight May 27, 2007 at Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in northern Minnesota. Bonfires were put out. Camp counselors moseyed back to their cabins. Little did they know, it was the last time they would see their co-worker, David Bodeau.
The next morning, the 19-year-old college freshman was still in bed. His alarm clock was going off, but he was dead.
Bodeau died from carbon monoxide poisoning when the propane heater in his cabin malfunctioned - despite the carbon monoxide detector next to his bed.
Two days before, David told his parents he tested the detector and changed the batteries. "He pushed the button; it made a noise; the light flashed; he thought he was safe," said David's father, Don Bodeau.
In the wake of the tragedy, David's mother, Kim Bodeau, said she checked the batteries from David's detector - they worked. "We began to wonder 'what's going on here?'" she said.
As it turns out, testing the batteries does not test the sensor within the machine that measures carbon monoxide in the air, she said.
In some cases, including David's, even the tester button on a carbon monoxide detector will show it to be working properly even if it is not, said Don Bodeau.
Carbon monoxide detectors need to be replaced every five to seven years, said Heather Caldwell, spokesperson for Kidde, a company that produces carbon monoxide detectors, smoke alarms and other safety appliances.
David's carbon monoxide detector was made in 1996, Kim Bodeau said, and although its battery power was fine, its sensor was not. Therefore, the detector did not alert him of the high carbon monoxide level in his cabin.
In 2001, Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., a non-profit product safety certification organization that tests products and sets standards, declared all carbon monoxide detectors must have end-of-life warnings and notifications of the detector's expiration, in order to receive UL certification, said John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager for Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.
When a Kidde carbon monoxide detector reaches its end-of-life, it emits a chirping noise or, if it has a digital display screen, it will read "ERROR" or "END," Caldwell said, adding these obstructions will persist despite a battery change.
"If you have a UL-listed carbon monoxide alarm, it should function normally up to its end-of-life," Drengenberg said, adding the major carbon monoxide detector manufacturers are UL-listed.
Most retailers would not risk putting a product on the shelf without a UL mark on it, he said.
According to the World Health Organization, carbon monoxide, a colourless, odourless gas, is produced by combustion appliances such as space heaters or gas stoves. It reacts with hemoglobin in the blood to form carboxy hemoglobin (COHb), which causes a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.
In humans, a COHb level of about 10 percent causes headaches, followed by dizziness, nausea and vomiting as the level rises. At 40 percent, a human would go into a coma and collapse. Finally, at 50 to 60 percent, the poisoning would be lethal, according to the WHO.
David's autopsy revealed a 71 percent COHb level in his blood, Kim Bodeau said.
Eau Claire assistant fire chief David Gee said he is called to the scene of a carbon monoxide detector going off at least a couple times per week during the heating season, mostly because of low-level carbon monoxide leaks or faulty detectors.
He said although the government does not yet enforce carbon monoxide detectors in homes, he strongly encourages it.
"Any time there's combustion, that's a possible source of carbon monoxide," he said, adding people should have a carbon monoxide detector on every level of their house, especially near the furnace, gas or motor heater and near the sleeping area. "That's where you're going to be the most vulnerable."
Senior Jessica Remington said it took a good deal of nagging from her mother to get her to install a carbon monoxide detector in her apartment. In mid-November, she came home to the alarm going off - the work of an old oven.
"It's amazing how many people know someone who has died from carbon monoxide, especially this time of year," she said. "It just kind of hits home."
Getting a carbon monoxide detector should be at the top of people's lists when they move in a new place, she said, adding, "I bought everybody carbon monoxide detectors for Christmas."
Since their son's death, Don and Kim Bodeau have been spreading the word about carbon monoxide safety.
Most importantly, they said, is to make sure a carbon monoxide detectors is UL listed. Check for the end-of-life date on the back. If it is older than five to seven years, it must be replaced. Write the end-of-life date on the front of the detector so it won't be forgotten, they said.
Keep combustible heaters in good working condition, Kim Bodeau said, adding furnaces should be checked by a technician on a yearly basis.
Have an alarm within 12 to 15 feet of bedrooms and within 12 to 15 feet of heating appliances, she said.
A dual power source is also important in the event of a power failure, Kim Bodeau said.
Although a detector's sensor can expire even if the power source is new, Drengenberg said people do not need to worry.
As long as the detector is not used past its end-of-life date, it should do what it is supposed to.
To keep themselves safe, he said, people need to do three things. First, get a carbon monoxide detector, second, make sure it is UL certified and lastly, do not use it past its end-of-life date.
Carbon monoxide detectors should be tested monthly, Caldwell said, and batteries should be replaced at least twice a year.
Although Don and Kim Bodeau will not get their son back, they said they feel they are doing something positive by getting the word out.
As Don put it, "If we could save one life, it would be worth it for us."