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From the Wichita Eagle

For three years, Jerry and Nancy Blue had no idea their elegant new home in north Wichita was killing them. The Blues say their two gas fireplaces, which were installed with vents that stopped in their attic instead of going outside through the roof, caused a build-up of carbon monoxide gas that has wrecked their lives.

The Blues didn't buy a carbon monoxide detector until three years after they'd moved in. And they didn't begin to realize their baffling health problems - as well as soot buildup in the home - may have been tied to their gas fireplaces until Christmas Day 1997. That was when the detector went off, a day after they purchased it.

The Blues had the fireplaces fixed, and have long since eliminated the soot from their home. But there is nothing they can do to eliminate what three years of low-level carbon monoxide gas did to their brains and organs, they say.

The Blues are among more than 20,000 people nationwide each year who seek medical attention after exposure to carbon monoxide, according to data published in 1997 by the American Association of Poison Control Centers Toxic Exposure Surveillance System.

The residual effects from the Blues' carbon monoxide poisoning, from 1994 to 1997, include short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, loss of energy, vision problems and depression -- to name only a few symptoms on a list that fills a full page.

"I'm a shell of the person I used to be," Nancy Blue said. Neither could successfully complete high school at this point in their lives, carbon monoxide expert Dr. Dennis Helffenstein told them in February 2000, following a weeklong series of neurological tests in Colorado Springs.

Carbon monoxide poisoning, more widely associated with cases that result in sudden onsets of severe flu-like symptoms or death, can also be devastating in smaller, long-term exposures, said David Penney, Ph.D., physiology of professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. And smaller, long-term doses of the gas are rarely detected until it's too late, Dr. Penney said.

Dr. Penney, who has devoted more than 25 years of research to carbon monoxide, is one of the nation's leading experts on the subject. "If you were able to choose the kind of brain injury you were to incur, it would be better in terms of the potential for recovery to have a stroke, concussion in a motor vehicle accident, etc. than carbon monoxide poisoning," Penney said.

The Blues, who do not have children, were self-described "social maniacs" before they got sick. They've shrunk from their old lifestyle of entertaining, visiting and traveling because they lack the concentration and energy to complete two tasks at once, Nancy Blue said.

Social situations have become a struggle because conversations can be nightmarish when they lack the ability to find the right word in mid-sentence. "You become embarrassed," Jerry Blue said. And panicked sometimes, too, when places and tasks familiar for years suddenly seem foreign, Nancy Blue explained.

Standing at a corner near Century II recently with her mother, Nancy Blue realized she was disoriented, even though she'd been to the building dozens of times before. "I looked at my mom and said, 'My God, I don't know where I am,' " she said. Jerry Blue recalled a time when he was driving down a familiar stretch of road and couldn't place the big, red-brick building on the horizon he always knew as Wesley Medical Center. "It's like when you lose your car in the parking lot," said Nancy Blue, "only a hundred times worse."

Nancy Blue had to quit her job at Boeing after 23 years, she said. Jerry Blue has managed to keep his job, but acknowledged that health problems sometimes make work difficult. Dr. Penney said the couple's brain damage will not get worse in the years ahead, but it's unlikely it will ever get better, either.

  • First problem soot:
    The Blues moved into their new home in the Willowbend subdivision in October 1994. Almost immediately, Nancy Blue said, they began using their two gas fireplaces for heat. "Sometimes all day and all night," she said. Two strange and seemingly unrelated events occurred slowly and inconspicuously at first, Nancy Blue said. Soot began to coat their home. At the same time, they began suffering unexplained health problems like headaches, swelling, fatigue, joint pain and rashes, Nancy Blue said.
  • In November 1997, when the Blues began to notice "black ghosting" -- rings of soot around objects that were set on countertops and tables -- they called a professional cleaning crew. On the advice of the cleaners, they contacted companies responsible for installing their furnace and hot water heaters, and their fireplaces. Workers from both companies came out to the home, checked the installations, and told the Blues the soot was not coming from the appliances or fireplaces, they said. "We didn't know what was causing it," Nancy Blue said.

    Wichita Fire Marshal Ed Bricknell said normally functioning fireplace may cause a small accumulation of soot over a gradual amount of time, but an excessive amount can indicate a problem. Soot occurs during "incomplete combustion," he explained, when the presence of oxygen and gas in the air is not balanced. "If that is not venting, that means soot will get inside the house," Bricknell said. It also means that people breathing that air are taking in carbon monoxide, he said.

    The Blues did not know their fireplace was not venting properly until they purchased a carbon monoxide detector "on a whim," a month after their home was cleaned, Jerry Blue said. It went off the next day, on Christmas morning, where it was plugged into a wall about 15 feet from the main floor fireplace, Jerry Blue said. The Blues immediately contacted KGE, which sent a technician to measure for carbon monoxide and check the furnace, hot water heater, gas stove and both fireplaces, they said.

    The inspector pinpointed the source of the gas to the fireplace on the main floor, and told the Blues he had no choice but to red tag the fireplaces, and turn off all the gas to the home. The Blues were only allowed to stay in the home after they promised to open all the windows, turn on the attic fan, air out the house and keep the gas to the fireplaces shut off, Jerry Blue said.

    About 60 days later, workers with Kansas Building Supply came out to the home and re-vented the fireplaces to terminate outside the home, instead of the attic where they did previously, the Blues said. The Blues later sued Kansas Building Supply for more than $3 million in future lost wages, property damage and medical costs. The company contends that the Blues' fireplaces were "designed to operate by using existing room air for combustion without the need for any secondary air source," according to court documents.

    Marc Powell, a lawyer for Kansas Building Supply, said the Blues were never able to prove in trial that the fireplace ever malfunctioned. Powell said Kansas Building Supply installed hundreds of other fireplaces the same way and never had complaints.

    After an eight-day trial this year in late March, a jury found no negligence by either party, said Eric Craft, a lawyer for the Blues. The Blues are seeking a new trial. The judge's ruling is scheduled for June 22.

  • Deteriorating health:
    Of the Blues' various health problems, the most obvious was the severe depression both said they suffered from. "Before, we rode bikes all the time, we worked out all the time," Nancy Blue said. "Our calendar would be booked six and seven weekends ahead of time. We went out all the time. We had lots of friends."

    The Blues initially sought treatment from chiropractors and kinesiologists, as well as physicians, they said. When they couldn't find what was ailing them, they stumbled upon Dr. Penney's Web site. He initially diagnosed their problem after reviewing a completed questionnaire they mailed him. Dr. Penney said correct diagnoses are often difficult to come by, he said.

    "For every single case of chronic carbon monoxide poisoning reported or successfully diagnosed, there are 10 cases that go unreported, undiscovered or undiagnosed," Dr. Penney said. Low levels of exposure can be more difficult to measure, because often by the time a patient reaches the doctor's office, levels of oxygen in the blood can return to normal, he said.

  • The rest of their lives:
    The Blues' medical costs have exceeded $125,000, Nancy Blue said, and the couple now face selling their home because of climbing expenses. "When we look in the mirror every day, we don't even recognize the people we see because of the drastic change in our physical appearance," she said. "We also have to readjust to living with each other. The brain damage we sustained has changed our personalities." The toughest part is knowing they'll never get better, she said. "The thought of never regaining anything we had is often more than we can handle."

    by Emily Robinson,
  • last changed 03/28/02

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