Carbon Monoxide Poisoning an Odorless Killer

A quadruple tragedy that claimed the lives of four area young people elicited shock and sympathy from local officials, as well as calls for increased vigilance to prevent deadly carbon monoxide poisonings.

“My heart goes out to these families,” said Attleboro Police Chief Kyle Heagney of the two men and two women, aged 18-23, whose bodies were found in a Maine vacation cabin July 17 – apparently asphyxiated by carbon monoxide from a generator.

“I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”

State Rep. Jay Barrows, R-Mansfield, said he does not know any of the victims personally but as a father feels the loss of any child deeply.

“It’s just a terrible tragedy,” he said. “It’s unfathomable really.”

Deana Powers, 22, of Mansfield; Keith Norris, 23, of Attleboro; Matthew Wakelin, 18, of Mansfield, and Brooke Wakelin, 21, of Attleboro, who reportedly were celebrating a birthday and a graduation at a cabin in Oxford County, Maine, were found dead July 17. The deaths apparently occurred earlier that week.

Officials were quoted as saying their deaths were under investigation, but appeared to be the result of carbon monoxide from a generator.

Fire safety officials said carbon monoxide is a stealthy killer whose effects may not be recognized until it’s too late.

Every year, at least 430 people die in the United States from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CO is found in fumes produced by portable generators, stoves, lanterns, and gas ranges, or combustion from burning charcoal and wood. CO from these sources can build up in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces.

“It’s colorless, odorless and its effects like headache, vomiting or nausea, can mimic a cold,” said Capt. Steve Stellakis of the Attleboro Fire Department.

Death from unsafe levels of carbon monoxide can occur within minutes, Stellakis said, as the gas bonds more readily with the blood’s hemoglobin than oxygen.

“It asphyxiates from within,” he said.

Sources of carbon monoxide are plentiful and can follow people on vacation, Stellakis said. Many people use propane-burning refrigerators, heaters and other appliances in summertime camps, tents and trailers.

Mansfield Fire Dept. Captain Richard Fiske said all fuel-burning appliances, including generators, should be vented outside and well away from buildings which should be protected with working carbon monoxide detectors.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, one generator is capable of producing as much carbon monoxide as hundreds of cars and can kill within minutes. Portable generators should never be used indoors or in garages, basements, or sheds, according to the CPC. They should always be used outside well away from windows, doors, vents, or any other opening.

In addition, charcoal or gas grills should never be used indoors, even with ventilation.

In buildings, a carbon monoxide source need not even be located within an apartment or living space to cause illness or death, Fiske said. CO can seep in from an adjacent garage or accumulate in attics or in wall spaces, eventually seeping into occupied spaces.

Massachusetts law requires carbon monoxide detectors in homes. However, Fiske said, devices are effective only if they contain working batteries or are powered from another source.

Public safety officials recommend that batteries be checked regularly and changed well before their expected expiration dates.

Anyone who believes they have been exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning or notices symptoms in another person should seek medical help immediately, Stellakis said.