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Rural Cyrus family discovers dangers of carbon monoxide

People are constantly warned at this time of year, as they spark up furnaces and begin closing up living spaces, to beware of carbon monoxide poisoning.

An incident in rural Cyrus last weekend accentuated how important the message can be.

Pam and Todd Engebretson and their daughter, Chelsea, were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning Saturday night.

The family was working to insulate their garage when they became sickened, apparently by exhaust from a forklift they were using.

After quick thinking and a call to 911, Pam, Todd and Chelsea were taken to Stevens Community Medical Center. Pam and Chelsea received oxygen for three hours and were released Saturday night.

The carbon monoxide levels in Todd's blood were elevated to the point that he was taken by ambulance to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for treatment in the facility's hyperbaric chamber to prevent long-term affects. He was released Sunday morning.

"We consider ourselves very lucky," Pam said.

The nature of the incident underscores the dangers of carbon monoxide, which can overcome people before they might even be aware what's happening. Many hints that a problem is developing can be overlooked, Pam said.

As the Engebretsons worked on the garage, Pam left for the house to get supper started.

"I got in the house and I could hardly stand up," Pam said. "I bent down and when I stood up I was really dizzy. I thought, 'Oh, oh, we've got trouble here.' "

Pam went back to the garage, opened doors and told Todd and Chelsea to get outside. Todd went to the house and called 911.

In retrospect, Pam said there were signs of trouble that the family didn't immediately realize.

For example, Pam and Chelsea were on scaffolding and joking about how they must be out of shape because even the smallest tasks left them fatigued. After the incident, when Pam returned to work on the garage, she noticed that the same tasks barely taxed them at all.

"It hindsight, there were indications that something was probably wrong and we just laughed it off," Pam said. "We didn't even know what was happening until it was almost too late."

Pam said the family will be installing carbon monoxide detectors in the garage and a work shed on the property.

"It's important," she said, "because by the time you know something's wrong, it may be too late to get out the door to prevent a bad outcome."

Facts about carbon monoxide

Here are some tips about carbon monoxide from the Minnesota Department of Health:

1. Any fuel-burning machine can create carbon monoxide.

2. Carbon monoxide can kill

3. Know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, which follow.

4. Buy and install a plug-in carbon monoxide alarm with a battery back-up or a battery-operated alarm.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a gas. It has no odor, no color and no taste. Sometimes it is called the "silent killer."

Carbon monoxide can be a problem after floods. People sometimes use portable generators for making power. Other gas powered tools are often used for cleaning.

Never use a generator, fuel-powered tools, gas or charcoal grill in the house, garage, in enclosed areas, or near windows, doors, vents, window air conditioners, and other openings.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

The most common symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning is a severe headache.

Carbon monoxide may also cause severe fatigue, weakness, chest pain in those with heart disease, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, confusion and lack of coordination. If not removed to fresh air, carbon monoxide can cause loss of consciousness and death.

If you start to feel sick or dizzy while using fuel-burning equipment, get to fresh air right away. Do not wait!

If you have a poison emergency, call the Minnesota Poison Control Center at: (800) 222-1222, or if the person is not breathing, call 911 for immediate help.

Buy and install a carbon monoxide alarm

Minnesota law requires that homes have a carbon monoxide alarm within 10 feet of every room used for sleeping.