beware the silent killer

Yukoners will gather this weekend to mourn the tragic death of five people who didn’t have to die. Although their cause of death has yet to be confirmed, all signs point to the silent killer: carbon monoxide poisoning.

Yukoners will gather this weekend to mourn the tragic death of five people who didn’t have to die.

The bodies of Bradley and Valerie Rusk, their children, Gabriel and Rebekah, and Donald McNamee, a man who boarded with the family, were discovered by a friend in their rented Porter Creek home last Sunday.

Although their cause of death has yet to be confirmed, all signs point to the silent killer: carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of a faulty oil heating system.

All five had been suffering from flu-like symptoms in the days leading up to their deaths and they’d stayed home to recuperate.

They had no way of knowing that was the worst thing they could have done.

It’s sad beyond belief. A tragedy that was completely preventable.

It’s frightening, too, because it could have been any number of us who heat with oil.

It still could be.

Not surprisingly, carbon monoxide detectors are flying off Whitehorse store shelves. Heating system experts are in high demand.

But the problem isn’t new. Detectors have been mandatory for all homes built since 2005 and the government is well aware of the issue.

Five years ago, the Yukon Housing Corporation hired Ontario-based NRG Resources Inc. to look at a sampling of oil heating systems. Fifty-one were inspected. Among those there were 316 infractions, and 152 of those had “significant concerns that either posed an imminent hazard or could reasonably be expected to develop a problem” in the future.

Not great results.

“The number and nature of the infractions indicate that a significant portion of oil-heat users are not aware of the legal and practical need for annual maintenance of oil-burning equipment and that the oil-heating industry is not responding responsibly to self-regulation as required in the Yukon,” the report said.

“Although there are good installations, technicians, and contractors, a large number of oil-heating installations are in noncompliance with minimum safety and efficiency standards.”

There is a lack of knowledge, a lack of maintenance, a lack of monitoring and a lack of consequences when standards are ignored, it concluded.

Some steps have been taken to improve the situation, but clearly not enough has been done.

Add to this the issue of renters who are often at the mercy of landlords as to whether systems are maintained or detectors installed.

The Yukon deaths resonated across the country. Ontario firefighter John Gignac, who lost four family members to carbon monoxide poisoning in 2008, could hardly believe the news.

He created a foundation to push for mandatory detectors.

But that’s just the first step.

His safety tip sheet has other useful advice:

1) Have all fuel-burning appliances and heating systems inspected annually by a licensed professional.

2) Replace carbon monoxide alarms every seven years.

3) Replace batteries in carbon monoxide alarms at least once annually.

4) Consider purchasing carbon monoxide alarms that have a digital display to show if deadly gas is present before harmful levels are reached.

5) If your carbon monoxide alarm sounds, evacuate immediately and call for help.