LOCKPORT - Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal, but in the case of a Town of Lockport woman, nearly falling victim to the colorless, odorless gas just after Christmas may have saved her life.
Laurie Baumgartner Pinzel, 50, passed out in the bathroom of her home in the early morning hours of Dec. 28 and struck her face on the sink.
She her husband, John, and her son, Joseph, were taken to Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston, for treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning.
While there, a CAT scan of her head showed she had an aneurysm in her brain, which had caused no symptoms. Pinzel is now taking aspirin to reduce the risk of the blood vessel bursting, which would be even more serious and more deadly than CO poisoning.
The source of the carbon monoxide was the natural gas furnace in the basement of the Pinzel family's two-story home on St. Joseph Drive. High winds dislodged the partial cap on the chimney and blocked it, Laurie said. The cap was held in place by four screws.
"The gas had nowhere to escape," she said.
The family had CO detectors that ran on wall current. But the family had unplugged the detectors, which were on the first and second floors, because their battery backups had died and the units were beeping. Laurie said she intended to buy more batteries later in the day.
The Wrights Corners Fire Company, which responded to their 911 call, found carbon monoxide readings of 700 parts per million on the first floor and 800 in the basement, Laurie said.
A level of 800 parts per million can cause death in two to three hours, but the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration allows workplace exposure of no more than 50 parts per million during an eight-hour work day.
"It was one of those things. You think, 'Oh, I'll just grab a battery the next day,'" she recalled.
As it happens, there's a state law requiring CO detectors in all homes where there is a fuel-burning appliance. Amanda's Law is named for Amanda Hansen, a West Seneca 16-year-old who died of CO poisoning on Jan. 17, 2009. Her death resulted from a defective boiler in a friend's house where Amanda was sleeping over.
Her parents, Ken and Kim Hansen, formed the Amanda Hansen Foundation to distribute CO detectors to those who can't afford them.
Ken Hansen said the foundation has given away nearly 19,000 detectors, along with 26 new furnaces and two hot water tanks to needy families. It also has presented five oximeters, units that give a fast CO reading, to local fire departments.
"We talked to the paramedics who worked on Amanda and they didn't know what they were working on, because they didn't feel so good themselves," Ken Hansen said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 20,000 people a year visit a hospital for treatment of CO poisoning. About 4,000 are admitted to the hospital, and more than 400 die.
The state Health Department said that between 2012 and 2014, the most recent figures available, 19 Niagara County residents were treated in emergency rooms because of carbon monoxide poisoning. Only three were admitted to hospitals, and none died. In Erie County during the same period, 84 people were treated, nine were admitted, and three died.
The Pinzels went to bed as usual on the night of Dec. 27, but trouble started when Laurie got up to use the bathroom about 2 a.m.
"I passed out on the bathroom floor and I hit my face. My face was so sore I couldn't fall back asleep," she recalled. Later, she was found to have suffered a concussion.
"A little while later my son had to go to work and he had a terrible headache, so my husband looked at both us and he said, 'Something's not right,'" Laurie said.
That's when John plugged the CO detectors back in and got the high readings. "We got out of the house and called 911," Laurie said.
Besides headaches, the symptoms they experienced included nausea and confusion. She said John went to bed thinking he had the flu. "It turned out not to be the flu," his wife said.
John and Joseph were hospitalized for a day, while Laurie spent two days at Mount St. Mary's.
"They gave me a CAT scan, since I fell, and they saw something on there they didn't like," she said. That was the aneurysm in her brain.
"It was kind of a blessing," she said of the examination she wouldn't have had if the family's chimney hadn't become blocked. She's now taking aspirin daily until she obtains a further checkup in late January.
Hansen said Laurie Pinzel sent him a lengthy email which, in effect, thanked Amanda for setting in motion the chain of CO detector purchases and events that ending up saving the Pinzel family.
"She's a really nice person," Hansen said.