City & Government, Cottage Grove

Carbon monoxide deaths spike in ice storm

Walter Cranford was a workhorse who was described as a “bright light for anybody who ever came across him.”

“He didn’t ever have bad words to say, even in the most stressful situations,” said Darrell Cranford, his nephew. 

Walter, 44, of Cottage Grove, died on Jan. 17 during the ice storm of apparent carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, after using a propane heater in his home without proper ventilation.

He wasn’t the only one. Lane County public information officer Jason Davis said there was an “astronomically high” number of reported deaths due to CO poisonings in January — up to 15 confirmed deaths reported so far. 

For comparison, “Our last highest month on record was February last year with five (deaths) in the whole month,” Davis said.

The spike in deaths is largely contributed to January’s ice storm, Davis said, which knocked out power for thousands in the dead of winter, leaving folks to find alternative ways to heat their homes. 

CO poisoning is a silent killer — undetectable since CO has no scent.

“When you mix ice into the equation, ice takes down power lines … we’ve had extensive power outages – some are near a record length of time that people don’t have power in Lane County – and that’s the direct association,” Davis said. “As people don’t have power, they may try to do things that result in them getting carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Walter was described by Darrell as an illiterate “hermit” whose death was the result of utilizing a small heater that did not have a CO or low oxygen shut off feature, which he said most bigger heaters have.

“Because of this tragedy, it’s important to get the story out that these heaters are not as indoor safe as people might misunderstand and misinterpret,” Darrell said. “He had the manual, but he couldn’t read! It’s all over the manual that it needs to be vented and that there’s a real risk for carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Darrell assumed his uncle knew to vent and make sure he had adequate air when using the propane heater.

“When the power went out, and had been out for several days, the temperature in that house was about 25 degrees without any heat of any sort. He was just trying to stay warm, so who am I to tell him ‘No, you can’t have a propane heater,’” Darrell said. “I never, not in a million years, anticipated that I’d walk into his room and try to wake him up for work that night and find him deceased. That’s an image that will be with me the rest of my life.”

Davis warns residents to use absolute caution when using alternative methods to warm their homes. 

He warned against using generators right by the homes’ vent, which sucks in air from the outside and allows that carbon monoxide to distribute into the house, and seriously advised against running power lines from a garage generator into the home.

“What they don’t understand is that there’s going to be carbon monoxide coming from the garage into the home,” he said. “It’s like if you ran your car in the garage for hours of time, there’s going to be some of that creeping into the home.”

When in doubt, it’s better to be cold, he said. 

“If you’re in the home, and you’re cold, that situation is tough – and I think anybody can empathize with you. But most of the time, when you’re sheltered, and you have blankets, you’re not going to die from that cold,” Davis said. “What you will die from is bringing your generator inside or bringing a petroleum heat unit inside.”

He added that, since CO filters are often plugged in, they will be solely relying on its batteries if the power goes out. Davis said people should ensure those batteries are fresh and that there are backup batteries to switch into it accessible because, if the batteries are dead, there is no extra protection of a functioning carbon monoxide detector.

Although CO poisoning is 100% preventable, at least 420 people die in the U.S. from accidental CO poisoning each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are many things you can do to mitigate carbon monoxide poisoning and only a few that you can do to guarantee that you’re going to get it,” Davis said.

“Please, please, please go with the odds and keep your generator outside if at all possible,” he said. “Make sure it’s 20 feet away from any door, window, or vent. Make sure your unit is functioning properly, preferably in the fall so you know (of any issues) before it needs to be used.”

If you have serious concerns that you have CO poisoning, call 911 immediately.

“The tipping point for carbon monoxide poisoning is very small. You go from the headache to vomiting to passing out and getting sleepy, which is kind of the point of no return, very quickly,” Davis said. “The first thing you do if you’re experiencing these symptoms is step outside immediately to get fresh air. Then call 911 and try to get emergency services. They’re going to need to do some work to reverse what’s happening in your body, and the sooner you do that, the better.”

Walter is survived by his three children Melody, Makayla, and Mariah.

Walter’s family may have to wait up to six months to get the toxicology results back to confirm whether CO poisoning is the official cause of death, according to Darrell. Davis added that toxicology reports are also quite expensive.

“Anything we can do to make a difference in his honor, by saving even one life, is worth doing and what we’re trying to do (through sharing his story),” Darrell said.



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