How to survive a silent killer

Dec. 7, 2020

Five caskets at the front of a church during a visitation

This year has been one of loss for so many Minnesotans. Loved ones are dying of COVID-19, in traffic crashes, in house fires, or in any one of a number of other ways. So imagine you have a family member in another state who manages to survive a hurricane…only to die of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Heartbreaking. Now imagine it’s not one family member, but five.

That’s exactly what happened to Sheletta Brundidge, who shared her family’s tragic story in this video. The Twin Cities radio personality and Cottage Grove resident was concerned for her Louisiana family’s safety during Hurricane Laura in August, but it never occurred to her to worry about CO poisoning. With their power out because of the hurricane, Brundidge’s family brought a gas-powered generator into their garage to stay comfortable. They dutifully left the garage door open to allow the deadly CO gas to escape – but sometime during the night, the wind blew it shut again.

Without a CO alarm to alert them to the odorless and colorless gas silently building up in their home, four of them died in their sleep. The fifth was put on life support and died later on. The vision of those five caskets at the front of the church will never leave Brundidge for as long as she lives.

So now, in the wake of this tragedy, Brundidge is telling everyone she can: Get a CO alarm. No matter where you live, CO poisoning is a danger. In Minnesota, CO incidents tend to increase during our cold winters, when furnaces and fireplaces are working overtime, and snow and ice can block the ventilation of cooking and heating units that burn fuel and produce CO.

Symptoms of CO poisoning are a lot like those of the flu and even COVID-19. You may have a headache, feel fatigued or dizzy, or find yourself short of breath, nauseated, or confused. But CO can cause death within minutes, so you need a CO alarm to detect it and alert you to its presence before it can hurt you or your family. Put one on each level of your home, and test them monthly.

Prevention is also key. Make sure your furnace and fireplace are in good working order by having a professional check them once a year. Never use a gas or charcoal burning device – like a generator, charcoal grill or camp stove – in your home, basement or garage, or outside near a window. If you have an attached garage, don’t warm up your car in it. And be sure to clear snow and debris from your furnace, dryer, fireplace and oven vents to allow CO to escape and prevent buildup. If you like to spend time ice fishing on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, your ice house needs a CO alarm, too.

The pain of losing five family members to CO poisoning is still very present for Brundidge. But she hopes that by spreading her tragic story, she can help prevent other families from experiencing that pain. “You’ve got to have those detectors in the home,” Brundidge pleads. “Don’t go to sleep thinking everything’s OK, because everything may not be OK.”