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Could my family have been exposed to chronic low level CO due to poor maintenance?

sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
So I posted photos earlier of what now seems to be gas condensation the chimney walls in the basement.
I'm trying to figure things out in my own head before deciding if I should take action.
Ok so here's the thing... I moved into this rented house in Sept '15 with my young kids. Last week we returned home to an odd smell. I opened the basement door and saw smoke billowing up the stairs. A minute later the smoke detector of my duel alarm activated. I evacuated and called 911.
The fire dept traced the smoke to the furnace and red tagged it. They were perplexed by the CO alarm not sounding as the levels were high enough. They brought in fans to clear out the CO until the level were eliminated.
The following day the fuel comp arrive to assess. The workers told me that the chimney was completely blocked by fallen bricks and soot and that no gases could escape.
The chimney guys came to assess and said the chimney looked like it hadn't been cleaned in decade. There was no liner or cap. The cement had turned to sand.
Per the tags hanging on the furnance downstairs, it looks to have been installed in 2000. Evaluations were done regularly but as for cleaning and servicing tags? There are 5 of those from 2000-last week.
Here's the kicker, before I moved in I had mild asthma. In oct 2015 and Oct 2016, after I just started to use the oil heat for the season, I had very severe attacks leading to about 8 days hospitalization in total. In march I got up in the middle of the night and my legs went from under me. Not sure if I fainted but it's never happened before. My kids have had frequent headaches and nausea (dr was monitoring as no apparent cause).
I'm just piecing it together now but I think we were exposed to low levels of CO for a long time! I'm horrified.


  • Tim McElwainTim McElwain Member Posts: 3,920
    The fact that you did not have attacks when the unit was not running and you do with it running says the furnace needs to be shut off and a professional who knows what they are doing needs to look at your unit. Do not use this system any more until it has been declared completely safe by a reputable oil service company.

    What is your location?
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    Thank you. It was shut off by the fire dept last week and repaired the following day but I'm still concerned that we've been exposed to gases for god knows how long. CO never crossed my mind before. Low levels can be damaging and most detectors won't sound until they exceed 30-70 ppm for a period of time. I had no idea!
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 6,861
    You are quite right to be horrified. There are no really solid studies on the persistent effects (after the end of exposure) of carbon monoxide poisoning, although there is some evidence that it there are, in fact, long term effects.

    Oddly enough, the Wikipedia article on carbon monoxide is pretty decent:

    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.

    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-McClain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • NY_RobNY_Rob Member Posts: 535
    edited May 11
    You can get yourself a Carbon Monoxide Meter... notice it's not a "Detector" so it can show real-time readings down to 1ppm!

    It's not a replacement for code required CO Detectors, but it does alarm instantaneously at 35ppm CO and it's an eye-opener for every day use around the house.
    One morning last summer It read 15ppm CO in my house... and I had no heating/cooking equipment on. Concerned... I brought it outside to clear it with fresh air- it immediately went up to 18ppm outdoors! Wonderful summertime NY smog!

    If nothing else, it will show you the effects of roasting the turkey for 3-4hrs without cracking a window... or using the self-clean feature of your oven during the winter :o

  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    Yikes! I did actually get one of those today. I also spoke with a world renowned CO expert who is adamant that chronic exposure can cause long term damage. He was one of a team of experts from around the world who helped WHO determine safe lower limits of CO. Read this interesting article today too.
  • EBEBRATT-EdEBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 2,675
    I am not understating what you went through at all. If the chimney was truly "completely blocked" you wouldn't have been able to stand being in the house the oil fumes would have driven you out of the place.

    Chances are that the chimney was partially blocked. That being said you should all be checked for CO exposure. I hope they put a chimney liner in
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    Both the furnace repair guys and the chimney said it was completely blocked. The chimney guy said it was so corroded that he could probably push it over with his fingers due to the degree of corrosion. I didn't actually see it myself so I can't say for sure. I could only have the heat on for short periods at a time cos it never kicked on until I turned it up to 70 and it's a small place so it would get hot fast.
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    Waiting for the landlord to sign off on the necessary repairs. They said that it should have a liner. I'm sure she haggling over the cost. Ugh. She has no idea what else is in store. I leaning towards hiring a lawyer.
  • ZmanZman Member Posts: 3,552
    I don't see your service tags attached. Did they happen to have the results of a combustion analysis?

    I am sure in the end, when the smoke billowed, the chimney was completely blocked. As mentioned above, it may have been wide open, up until that time.

    It sounds very likely that you where in fact exposed to CO for an extended period of time. All the pieces fit that scenario. I am truly saddened by your story.

    The real question is, can you prove that you were exposed? I am not aware of a test that will tell you that you have had long term exposure, like using a hair test for certain toxins, perhaps there is one.
    Is there any documentation that will show that the furnace was not properly maintained? Were repairs recommended and not performed?

    Whatever you do, be careful of spending huge sums of money on lawyers unless you are confident you have a case. There are very few things more dangerous than CO. One of them may be personal injury attorneys.

    "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough"
    Albert Einstein
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    When the incident happened with the furnace last week we had just arrived home and I evacuated immediately so we didn't go to the hospital. It was only in the next few days as the repairs began that I started piecing it together and by that time nothing would have been detected.
    There are a bunch of Heat System Evaluation tags that were pretty much annual until 2014. There were 5 Cleaned and Checked tags but random years. I think it was installed in 2000 and only cleaned 5 times. The last being 2014.
    While I don't have indisputable proof, I never needed more than my rescue inhaler or an occasional nebulizer treatment for my asthma before moving here. Since then I have been hospitalized with severe breathing issues that took days of many different treatments to control. Both occurred after turned on heating system at the start of the season. The last one put me in the step down icu for 5 days. And I also collapsed suddenly for an unknown reason a few months ago. Many tests were run and no cause was found but CO was never mentioned.
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    I assume that if the homeowner had maintained the chimney, she will have service receipts to prove it.
    It could have been a lot worse and I'm so thankful my kids are alive.
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    edited May 12

    This was the last Evaluation before last weeks incident.
  • NY_RobNY_Rob Member Posts: 535
    What is the age of the home?

    Is a chimney inspection part of a regular boiler tune-up/annual inspection? I can't recall anyone ever looking at my chimney when servicing my boiler?
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    The house was built in 1890! I have never seen anyone attend to the chimney in the almost two years I have been here. Judging by the fact that the furnace was cleaned and checked 5 times in 17 years, I'll hazard a guess and say it probably hasn't had much attention since the owner purchased it 22 years ago.

  • NY_RobNY_Rob Member Posts: 535
    ^ part of our "aging infrastructure" I guess :/
  • ZmanZman Member Posts: 3,552
    Unfortunately, a furnace like that was able to slip through the cracks.
    If it was installed by today's codes, the chimney would need to be inspected and lined when they replaced it. If it is 20 plus years old that likely was not the case.

    Perhaps one of the oil guys will weigh on the combustion analysis on the 2014 service tag. My limited understanding of oil burners is that those results are not perfect but are also not indicating a major problem.

    I am curious how long the water marks on the basement wall from your other post existed. To a trained eye, that should be a red flag.

    Carbon Monoxide in my mind has been tragically under reported.
    Cases like this are far too common.
    Why the medical examiner for the first 2 deaths was not held accountable is beyond me.
    "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough"
    Albert Einstein
  • HVACNUTHVACNUT Member Posts: 738
    Usually an oil maintenance will include checking and clearing the chimney base only, and then doing a draft test as part of the combustion analysis. The last ticket shows a -.03 breach which isn't great but not terrible.
    An oil system will typically soot up before putting out levels of CO, but if the blockage was sudden,then obviously it would start right then.
    As far as the hospitalization, headaches and nausea in 2016, like I said, it would've sooted up and probably puffed back at that time. Now in May of 2017, it would not have run so long without going into safety or you or a family member noticing odors or black smoke from the chimney, so it doesn't seem related IMO.
    Is there a written contract with the landlord stating who is responsible for annual maintenance?
    Are you, or the landlord getting COD oil, or do you have a service agreement with an oil company? If you don't, I recommend getting one from a reputable company. You'll pay more for oil, but you'll have piece of mind. Ask if they phone or mail postcard reminders when it's time for the annual tune up.
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    To be honest the chimney wasn't even on my radar until last week so I can't say I've noticed any black smoke. I usually have the heat on for 30 minutes and then turn it off as it never seems to turn on until the dial goes past 70. It's a smallish place so it heats up fast. That said I do sometimes run it longer but will open a window or two a little so we don't overheat. I know that sounds ridiculous but not having it work below 70 and cold NE winters, you don't want to leave it off at night usually.
    The heat is included in the rent and landlord has a contract with a local fuel company that deliver the oil and do the furnace evaluations and the occasional clean and check. BTW, shouldn't that be done annually? There's only 5 tags (the 6th was done last week after the incident) covering 2000- present.
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    As for the oil marks I noticed them probably a year ago and didn't think anything of them at the time. I know nothing about heat systems as I've always lived places where they were obviously maintained so I've never needed to deal with them. My blissful ignorance was rudely interrupted last week and it's been a steep learning curve. I should have been paying better attention but I will make sure this never happens again.
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    That's an unforgivable oversight on the medical examiners behalf. How that mother can get up every day knowing her child's death could have been prevented is beyond me. I have two kids, the youngest just turned 8 and there is no compensation, monetary or otherwise, for losing your child. I will be eternally grateful that I didn't end up in that situation.
  • HVACNUTHVACNUT Member Posts: 738
    Common oil maintenance is called an ATU, as in ANNUAL tune up. It should be serviced yearly with a printed (not written) copy of the combustion analysis. Most digital analyzers have a built in printer. If they use the old style wet kit, get a new company.
    Sounds like you also need a new thermostat.
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    Good point. I'm looking to get the hell out of this place! The landlord barely acknowledge the incident. Shady as hell.
  • SteamheadSteamhead Member Posts: 11,425
    I would also check every other piece of combustion equipment in the house. Water heater, kitchen stove, dryer etc. all can produce CO.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    "Reducing our country's energy consumption, one system at a time"
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Baltimore, MD (USA) and consulting anywhere.
  • j aj a Member Posts: 1,693
    Question for the o you have gas appliances, and if you do get the gas company involved....I think your tag said they checked the hot water...was that oil or gas
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    I have a gas range and oil heat.
  • LanceLance Member Posts: 63
    I have been exposed to Co. It is stealthy, subtle and deadly. We carry CO detectors turned on when we walk in. All good comments by others but the oil combustion report lacked one important thing, the Overfire draft measurement which tells me the individual was not a pro. Overfire draft is necessary to determine the balance of the combustion process. A chimney can draft well, but if the heat exchanger is compromised it could read positive indicating blockage internally and gases spill into the building. What I usually look for in a group of reports is if they are all the same. Some techs learn the numbers and fill in bogus reports because they are on the clock and time is limited or they are lazy. Was there a barometric damper present? I find many a system lacking this one important device that allows a balanced draft which saves money. Without it the job is incomplete. Signature is worthless.
    We recently installed a new boiler in a home with a chimney liner 6 months new. It failed our inspection. We found the installer cheated, crushed the liner, failed to drop it all the way down and seal it. It had to be done over. It took us two months to get the contractor to redo it. I finally threatened him with building inspection. New or old, unless tested it is always suspect.
    Does your town have an inspection department? Your taxes pay for them to inspect.
  • WayneMechWayneMech Member Posts: 46
    edited May 18
    Sarahm73, definitely get out of that place.
    As for inspections, Lance, they are, usually, only available in metropolitan areas. That is terrible.
    Years ago, I raised a "Flag on the play". I was on the board of a Church Association Camp. As part of a multi-cabin remodel project, they were putting two small furnaces in the same Mechanical Room with the atmospheric draft, tank type water heater. Both furnaces took ALL of their return air from that room! The original plan was to install a sealed combustion tankless unit, but the Camp Director, along with the remodeling contractor, decided to "Save Big Money" (from you-know-where) by changing to tank type. They would not listen. I met with the State Plumbing Inspector, and explained the situation, asking him to please explain the problem to them. He did. The next Sunday, the Pastor (also the Board President) told me that I was removed from the board. It hurts, but not as much as the guilt would.
  • captaincocaptainco Member Posts: 268
    A couple of corrections here: A brand new clean oil furnace can make thousands of ppm of CO with no soot or smoke. Often to clean up the smoke techs keep opening the air shutter which cools the flame and causes impingement.

    An oil flue with no cap is like a flue with a birds nest in it on a rainy day. Wet flues reduce the capacity of a flue up to 40%.

    Too bad the circus closed down because there are a lot of Dumbo's out there.

    There are neuro-physiological testing for CO damage to the brain.

    There are many studies on the long term effects of CO poisoning not to mention Alzheimer's and Parkinson.

    You should be protected by landlord laws that mandate a safe living environment.

    Do not stay there another night if the furnace is running!

    Nothing on the furnace service tag verifies it is operating safely.
  • SteamheadSteamhead Member Posts: 11,425
    captainco said:

    Too bad the circus closed down because there are a lot of Dumbo's out there.

    I like this!

    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    "Reducing our country's energy consumption, one system at a time"
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Baltimore, MD (USA) and consulting anywhere.
  • STEVEusaPASTEVEusaPA Member Posts: 1,570
    BTW, those are horrible numbers- 7 C02? It says it's an AF so I'm assuming it's a pretty old. No overfire draft tells me it was either not checked, or positive.
  • SteamheadSteamhead Member Posts: 11,425
    That CO2 reading can result from air leaks into the fire-side of the unit, or the air adjustment being open too far. To find out which, one would need to run a test of the flue gases over the fire, which would also include a draft measurement.

    We have plenty of AFs out there and they do a lot better. And Beckett still makes them.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    "Reducing our country's energy consumption, one system at a time"
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Baltimore, MD (USA) and consulting anywhere.
  • JackmartinJackmartin Member Posts: 23
    edited May 25
    Hello from Canada I do not want to sound like the RCMP but in Canada the first person they would hang and remove my license would be me. In Canada if you are even slightly concerned about a furnace boiler etc you have to phone the enforcing agency; here it is Manitoba Hydro and request they visit the site and do a CO test. If I was stupid enough not to follow the rules I would be instantly suspended , subject to recertification and in the event someone was hurt criminally responsible by way of négligence. The thing that should happen is the person who put up the combustion slip should be taken to task , have to recertify and the landlord should be held responsable for endargement of a tenant by the owner of a dwelling house. I have a deep disgust for low rental landlords. I have been in places so bad the dog left home out of self defense. I do not have any problem turning these low lifes into the enforcing agency they want to get rich on other peoples misery. Make sure you tell the association that controls landlords in your area what you went through so no one is hurt THEN GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE you cannot replace children. Jack Martin
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    Thank you all so much for all your advice. I knew absolutely nothing about heating systems and put faith in the landlord to fulfill her obligations. Never again will I do that and now I will actively monitor the heat system wherever I live.
    I am actively looking for a new house. I haven't worked for 1.5 years due to ill health mostly. While I had some issues prior to moving here, they became so much worse afterwards. I never made the connection before the furnace issue. I pretty much drained my savings supporting my kids in that time as I wasn't working.
    I have been sitting with lawsuit papers in front of me for a week, deciding if I should take action against the landlord. Yesterday I took a look at the water heaters in the basement and saw this.
    I think my decision has been made.
  • sarahm73sarahm73 Member Posts: 27
    The furnace too has soot or scorch marks.
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