When What You Don’t Know Can Kill You


Michelle and son, James.

Editor’s Note: Michelle Sinclair is the daughter of columnist Melodie Davis; she is married and works in Washington, D.C. She and her husband have a toddler son.

It was a long, bitterly cold winter where we live. Every night, we fell asleep to the sound of our furnace humming to life. Next, we’d hear the gas jets ignite, and then, a few seconds later, the blower pushing heat through the vents of our home to keep us warm.

In spite of the ensuing hassles—staying with friends and family for nearly two weeks while our home warranty company took its sweet time replacing the furnace—we know how lucky we are.

Night after night, we snuggled into our beds, completely unware our furnace had begun the slow but steady process of killing us.

That might sound overdramatic, but it’s hard to overestimate carbon monoxide poisoning. I had heard the warnings: carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, colorless gas. When we bought our house last summer, we were pleased to see a carbon monoxide monitor plugged into a room near our gas furnace. Clearly, we were covered.

But I didn’t know carbon monoxide can be just as deadly in low doses over longer periods of time—doses that are difficult for many monitors to detect. CO builds up in the blood, blocking oxygen from being absorbed into the bloodstream, depriving the brain. We didn’t realize our monitor (an older model) would only sound the alarm once CO levels had reached “deadly in a short amount of time” levels.

So on we slept.

Then in late March, our 15-month-old son woke up vomiting for the second of two nights, and my husband and I took him to urgent care, just in case. The doctors gave us some anti-nausea medication to keep him from getting dehydrated, and sent us home. Pulling into the driveway at 3 a.m., we were weary and looking forward to our beds.

But when we opened the door, a beeping CO monitor greeted us. We panicked. We’d never heard it going off before, so we didn’t know if this sound was just an “I’m wearing out and need to be replaced” sort of warning, or THE alarm. Was James sick because of carbon monoxide poisoning? We weren’t going to take any chances. I booked us a room in a nearby hotel, and by 4 a.m. we were in bed. Just not our own.

A furnace technician visit the next day confirmed the worst—our furnace was leaking CO and had to be replaced. However, my husband got a better look at the monitor and discovered it had not been sounding an alarm. It had expired and was notifying us that it needed to be replaced. If it hadn’t chosen that time to expire, it may not have sounded until we were already well on our way to CO poisoning. (Fortunately, it turned out James only had a stomach bug.)

In spite of the ensuing hassles—staying with friends and family for nearly two weeks while our home warranty company took its sweet time replacing the furnace—we know how lucky we are. And you can bet we now have monitors all over our house, including a digital one that shows the level of CO in the house, not just an alarm for when the gas reaches a dangerous level.

The same week we were out of our house, a carbon monoxide tragedy in a nearby Maryland home took the lives of a father and his eight children while they slept. It was gut-wrenching national news, and is an intense reminder that those CO monitors and smoke alarms that beep randomly or go off during a smoky cooking experiment do serve a purpose. Smoke alarms shouldn’t be sitting battery-less, even if the blame things won’t stop beeping. If it’s so faulty, buy a new one.

We are so grateful we had a wake-up call that spurred us to protect our family better. I hope our scare can inspire others to do the same.

As we spent nights in four different homes and a hotel (one home on the weekend was my mother-in-law’s—we didn’t want to wear out our welcome anywhere), I also had to think of those who are suddenly displaced from their homes for numerous reasons. Sometimes they are evicted even in the middle of the night as we were. Domestic violence, poverty, and drug addictions often lie at the root of so much homelessness we see, and dislocation often occurs with more than one small child in tow. I have new feelings of empathy for the disruption and instability this brings to families, and I appreciate the efforts my own church is doing to work at housing issues in its immediate community.


For a free leaflet, Dealing with Spouse Abuse—one of the many causes of displacement—write to Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802 or email MelodieD@MennoMedia.org.