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Carbon Monoxide: Last Year’s Surprise Killer Still Claims Lives

SEATTLE — A year has passed since that cold December night, but Louis Duke will never forget the helpless feeling that came over him when he collapsed in the bathroom of his daughter s Enumclaw home.

I could barely move, said Duke, 73. I just had no strength.

He didn t know it then, but as an ambulance whisked Duke off to the hospital, he was part of the worst epidemic of carbon-monoxide poisonings in the country s history: After last December s windstorm raged across the region, more than 300 people were sickened, and eight were killed as families without electricity turned to alternate sources of heat and power.

It was an overwhelming number, said Dr. Neil Hampson, director of the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine at Virginia Mason Medical Center, where 70 patients were treated.

And, as we see, the danger is still out there.

Last week, 20 adults and a 9-year-old boy became ill after inhaling carbon monoxide in an Ocean Shores grocery store powered by a generator. Less than two weeks earlier, three children died in a rural home in Grant County where a gasoline generator was running.

Gov. Christine Gregoire has called the Ocean Shores incident a reminder of the consequences of carbon monoxide and urged families using gasoline-powered generators to also get sensors that detect carbon monoxide, which is colorless and odorless, but lethal.

And around Puget Sound, government and community groups are working hard to warn of the dangers.

8 of 15 deaths last year

Carbon monoxide was the surprise killer in the windstorms of December 2006, responsible for eight of the state s 15 fatalities.

Duke had been staying with his daughter because his West Seattle home lost electricity in what came to be called the Hanukkah Eve Wind Storm. His daughter lost power, too, but she had a generator. Even though the generator was outside, carbon monoxide apparently seeped through a vent into the room where Duke was staying.

At Virginia Mason, he spent several hours in a hyperbaric chamber, which boosts the amount of oxygen in a patient s bloodstream. And looking back on that night, he has one overriding sentiment: I feel very fortunate … I know that some didn t make it.

The carbon-monoxide cases came quickly that week, with 1.5 million utility customers in the dark.

Immigrant populations were the hardest hit: Of the 70 people treated in Virginia Mason s hyperbaric chamber, only five spoke English as their first language.

Early arrivals at Virginia Mason and Harborview Medical Center included three dozen Kent residents, nearly all Somali immigrants who had been cooking and warming themselves over charcoal grills indoors.

For the Vulnerable Populations Action Team of Public Health Seattle & King County, formed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, This was our first opportunity to take our planning work and turn it into a response effort, said Carina Elsenboss, a program manager with the health district.

Too late for some

As the cases mounted, calls were made to immigrant-community groups. Hundreds of fliers in seven languages were distributed and a news conference was held.

Into the next week, churches, grocery stores, restaurants and gathering places of every kind were helping spread the carbon-monoxide warnings, which were eventually produced in 14 languages.

For some, the warnings came too late: On the next Monday, four members of a Vietnamese family were found dead in their Burien home. A generator had been running in their garage.

Neighbors and a close-knit Vietnamese community mourned the deaths of Khanh Tran, 46; his wife, Dan Thuy Nguyen, 44; and two of their sons, Quyen Tran, 21, and John Quoc Tran, 14. Another son, Doanh Tran, 24, was found alive but unconscious, and died five weeks later.

I still think of them every day, their next-door neighbor, Wayne Stepp, said. They were the nicest neighbors I ve ever had.

Their Burien house sits silent, the object of probate proceedings, Stepp said. And a single surviving son, Canh Tran, who was a University of Washington student living on campus during last year s storm, has moved to Texas.

Information campaign

As the number of cases of carbon-monoxide poisoning rose, Hampson at Virginia Mason said he was distressed, but not entirely surprised.

A month earlier, he had published an article in a medical journal describing the threat carbon monoxide poses after winter storms. It s very predictable, because it has happened over and over again.

The challenge, he said, is to get the attention of the public and the news media before the crisis comes.

Traditionally, that has not been a news story, he said, because it focuses on what might happen, instead of what is happening.

This season, stepped-up efforts to spread warnings about carbon monoxide have been part of a Take Winter by Storm campaign sponsored by Seattle, King County, Puget Sound Energy and the state Transportation Department. Large blue posters and letter-size warning sheets are on display in many offices, clinics and other agencies. Radio spots have run in a half-dozen languages.

We know the word is getting out, but there are always new people coming into the community, Elsenboss said.

We have to keep it front and center.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or [email protected]

Prevent carbon-monoxide poisoning

  • Never burn charcoal inside homes, vehicles or garages.
  • Do not burn charcoal in the fireplace in your home.
  • Never use gasoline-powered equipment indoors.
  • Never use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
  • Never idle a car in a garage, even when the garage door is open.
  • Never sleep in a room while using an unvented gas or kerosene heater.
  • Make sure chimneys and flues are in good condition and are not blocked.
  • Have fireplaces, wood stoves and oil or gas appliances checked every year by a professional.
  • Carbon-monoxide-warning devices may provide additional protection, but should not replace the other prevention steps.

Source: Public Health Seattle & King County


For carbon-monoxide warnings in more than a dozen languages, see

For additional information on coping with a storm, see