18 Jul 2016

Family's close call after carbon monoxide poisoning

6:19 am on 18 July 2016

A Christchurch family is lucky to be alive after being rushed to hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Five members of the family, including three young children, spent Friday night in decompression chambers at Christchurch Hospital, after the youngest child lost consciousness and had a seizure.

170414. Photo Diego Opatowski / RNZ. Christchurch Hospital main Entrance

Five members of the family had to spend the night in decompression chambers at Christchurch Hospital. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The man, who RNZ has agreed not to name, lives in Pegasus about half an hour north of Christchurch.

On Friday, he and his family returned home to find the power to the house was down. With no prospect of having it turned on until Monday, he hired a generator and set it up outside his garage, leaving the door slightly ajar.

"The leads were run inside and into the house - and I had only enough gap in that door for the leads to go through. And that door was jammed shut with a kitten litter box," he said.

Initially things went well.

"The boys loved it, because it was like camping to them. And there was no fumes, no nothing, it was all great, until everybody started getting crook about eight [o'clock].

"They started feeling headaches and just nausea, just tired. From history I realised this must be the generator that's outside. I thought okay I will get them into bed and that was it," he said.

"As we were getting them into bed, the youngest had a fit and just lost consciousness.

"And so in the meantime, whilst that was all happening I just Googled what I thought it was and it told me the symptoms and I knew straight away what it was," he said.

He frantically dialled 111 and got his children and partner out of the house.

As ambulances rushed his family to hospital, he went through the house with fire officers whose equipment showed unusually high readings for carbon monoxide.

"I was surprised - you can't smell it, you couldn't smell the fumes of the petrol or anything like that," he said.

Woodend volunteer fire brigade station officer Kori Howse was called to the house.

"They were about to go to bed ... I said to the father 'mate, you were very close to saying goodnight for the last time'.

He said it was a shock to the father at how the poisoning could happen. "I says 'mate it does, just common sense'," Mr Howse said.

When the man was reunited with his family at Christchurch Hospital, they were put into decompression chambers.

"They pump 100 percent pure oxygen into you, because what happens with the carbon monoxide poisoning, they told us that it messes with your red blood cells and they have to get the good oxygen into you and it's a lot quicker to do it that way," he said.

The experience was scary for his children, who were in the chamber for a couple of hours.

"It's painful for them because your ears are popping, and hurting. And just the whole of boredom of it I think got to them," he said.

National Poisons Centre medical toxicologist Michael Beasley said carbon monoxide poisoning from generators was not as common in New Zealand as overseas, where vehicles, cooking and heating appliances were the more likely culprits.

He said carbon monoxide acted on the body in a number of ways.

"It reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.

"With that reduced amount of oxygen in the blood it actually reduces the transmission of that from the blood into the tissues, so it has at least a two-fold action in decreasing the oxygen in the blood and also decreasing the oxygen delivery to the tissues," Mr Beasley said.

The family is now back in their house and the power is back on, but the man said he was very lucky.

"It's something that I don't think people are aware how easy it is. I've spoken to people since and it's like 'holy shit'. I could have been the only one that survived and I would never have lived with that," he said.

He said he was thankful to the paramedics and firefighters who, as volunteers, came out and gave their time so willingly on a Friday night.

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