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Suspected fatal carbon monoxide poisonings under investigation

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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
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First-responders found a portable generator with empty fuel tank in shed adjoining the workshop where the victims were found. Experts recommend operating those generators outside, at least 20 feet away from homes or outbuildings here people live or work.

Portable generator, woodstove emissions may have killed 2, sickened 1 in North Pole workshop, investigators say

The state Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the deaths of two people whose bodies were found in a North Pole workshop last week. A third victim who was in the shop was hospitalized and is still being treated. First responders suspect they were victims of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Autopsy results for the two who died are still pending, but North Star Volunteer firefighters who responded to the November 23rd call observed signs of exposure to deadly carbon monoxide fumes.

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Federal Emergency Management Agency
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Alaska Department of Public Safety spokesperson Tim DeSpain says the firefighters and a state deputy fire marshal who later went to the residence on Mill Pond Road found a generator with an empty fuel tank in a shed attached to the workshop where the bodies were found.

“All indications are that it was carbon monoxide poisoning,” DeSpain said in an interview Monday.

Responders also noted that a woodstove in the shop was still warm. North Star Volunteer Fire Chief Geoff Coon says it’s possible the stove also produced carbon monoxide that accumulated inside the workshop.

“Anything that produces a flame for heat has the potential to give off carbon monoxide,” Coon said Monday. “Anytime you have a heating device that’s not burning completely, it has the potential to put off harmful carbon monoxide.”

Coon says the victims likely weren’t even aware of the deadly gas.

“Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas,” he said. “By the time you start feeling the effects, it could be too late.”

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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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Experts recommend installing carbon monoxide detectors in homes and other areas in which people live or work. It's also important to check the detectors and change their batteries annually.

The firefighters also found an unresponsive woman in the workshop, who was transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for treatment. North Pole Fire Department and Salcha Fire and Rescue dispatched ambulances to transport victims. The woman's current condition wasn’t available Monday, because the Department of Public Safety hasn’t released the victims’ names due to problems in notifying next-of-kin.

Coon says it usually takes a while for victims to recover.

“Carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in the blood, and deprives the heart and brain and other vital organs of oxygen,” he said. “And once you get it in your system, it takes a long time to get it out of your system.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 400 Americans are killed by carbon monoxide poisoning annually, and it sends about 50,000 people to the emergency room every year.

Coon recommends installing a carbon-monoxide detector in homes and outbuildings where people live or work.

The state fire marshal’s office is still investigating last week’s incident, but foul play is not suspected.

Editor's note: Click here for more information on how to protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.