How News People Promote Bad Information

Here are three different accounts of the same carbon monoxide event. Two of the news pieces get the facts “wrong”, which leaves readers (and viewers of the TV versions) with the wrong impression. Pay attention to the full coverage provided by the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the correct diagnosis of the cause.

The point here is that the media slants their coverage of carbon monoxide issues based on their own biases. Please realize that reporters and videographers are like most folks and have very little knowledge about furnaces or carbon monoxide and its causes. However, news people are usually quick to vilify gas-fired equipment as the source and cause of carbon monoxide problems, usually because they assume that the problem must be caused by the equipment.

Unfortunately readers (and viewers) pick up on the message and begin to hold the view that all carbon monoxide problems must be caused by the equipment. This kind of coverage also affects the views held by first responders and HVAC service people. Even building code officials and safety organizations (who should know better) propogate the same attitude.

The problem with this approach is that investigations and troubleshooting procedures start from the wrong premis — that the problem is equipment related. Doing so means they pass over all of the real problems and focus on the equipment first. This wastes time and in many cases contributes to incorrect diagnosis. It also costs consumers, manufacturers and contractors a lot of money every year due to increased liability insurance costs, court settlements and “incorrect” verdicts that award “victims” millions of dollars for their own stupidity. This incident is a perfect example.

The mother gets up in the middle of the night and turns on the furnace because the house was cold. She either didn’t know, or ignored the fact that the attic fan was running. Although the news articles do not state it, you have to assume that there were some windows open and there is a chance she went around and closed those windows. (Who would have a whole-house attic fan running with no windows open?)

She goes back to sleep and wakes up feeling ill and notices that no one else in the house is up, which is unusual. She tries to wake the family, but they don’t respond. She has the presence of mind to start carrying her children outside. That’s when first-responders arrive. Fortunately all the family members regain consciousness outside and are transported to the hospital for observation.

Now for a Little Fortune Telling

Here’s the important point. Had there been a death that resulted from the incident, the furnace manufacturer, the service contractor that last worked on the system, the landlord and anyone else that may have had anything to do with the furnace will be named in a wrongful death lawsuit. When that happens, all parties lose. Even when the furnace is proven safe and the service contractor is cleared and judged to have performed their work up to code, there will be a monetary award to the victim’s family that is grossly out of proportion to any reasonable person’s view of culpability. The defendants’ liability will be “judged by the depths of their pockets” and not on the facts.

Had only a couple of children and the mother survived, the wrongful death lawsuit would go before a jury. Somehow, the fact that the attic fan was running would be glossed over, or ignored by the plaintif’s lawyer. It may never be discovered by the defendant’s lawyer, or it may be excluded by the judge as “inadmissible” because “it has little bearing on the case”. After the plaintiff’s lawyers insist that the gas furnace and/or water heater had to be the problem because they were the only appliances in the house, the jury awards the mother a few million dollars to support and treat her remaining children and make up for her loss of her husband’s income.

In the end, the insurance companies will spread the losses across all their policy holders the following year. That will add a couple-hundred more bucks to the cost of every new furnace and another 10 or 20 bucks to the cost of a service call. (The actual numbers are wild guesses, but the concept is correct.) Pitty the poor service contractor that didn’t have adequate insurance coverage. He probably lost his business and his house.

Here’s a chart that shows the differences in coverage and conclusions pertaining to the same event. Note that the written article by KMOX provides a lot less information than the video clip.


Factoid KMOX KMOV Post-Dispatch
Number of victims 9 8 8 or 9
911 Call Time shortly before 8AM Not stated 7:48 AM
Cause of incident

From the video: very high levels of carbon monoxide coming from a furnace, which did not have an “automatic shut off”. Note the difference between video and writen piece.

(Makes it sound like the furnace did it.)

furnace and attic fan were running in the home, which likely spread the carbon monoxide fumes.

(Makes it sound like the furnace did it.)

Firefighters believe carbon monoxide began leaking into the house because the attic fan was running and the windows were closed, which caused the exhaust from the furnace to be pulled back into the house.

(Tells true story.)

Location same same same


Here are the actual articles for comparison.

CBS St. Louis – KMOX – Carbon Monoxide Sickens Nine in Florissant

Greg Branson
May 12, 2013 9:27 AM
FLORISSANT, Mo. (KMOX) – Nine members of a Florissant family are recovering after their rescue Sunday morning by police and firefighters.

Florissant police officer Andy Haarmaan tells KMOX a woman in the 3500 block of Stonehaven Drive called 911 shortly before eight, after waking up woozy and finding her relatives unconscious, “When firefighters arrived, they found very high levels of carbon monoxide coming from a furnace. Police and firefighters got everybody out of the house. Once they got them out, all eight people who were unconscious started to respond.”

Haarmaan says the family members were taken to local hospitals for observation. Their ages range from less than one to 44-years-old. – Florissant mother saves family from carbon monoxide poisoning

by Caroline Hilton /
Posted on May 12, 2013 at 9:16 AM
Updated today at 12:24 AM

( — A Florissant mother saved herself and seven others from carbon monoxide poisoning after she woke up to find family members unresponsive on Sunday morning.

Police responded to the 3500 block of Stonehaven Dr. after a mother woke up and noticed something was wrong.

The mother reportedly went from room to room to wake up the others in the household, but was unable to wake them. The mother then began feeling ill and called 911. Police and fire crews responded to the scene and found elevated levels of carbon monoxide.

The victims were evacuated from the home and transported to area hospitals for treatment. Authorities report that all the victims were conscious upon leaving the scene. The victims range from an infant to a 44-year-old.

Fire officials said a furnace and attic fan were running in the home, which likely spread the carbon monoxide fumes. Stay tuned to News 4 and for more details on this developing story.

St. Louis Post Dispatch – Family nearly succumbs to carbon monoxide in Florissant

By Christine Byers 314-340-8087

FLORISSANT • Police say a mother saved the day on Mother’s Day after calling for help upon finding about a dozen of her family members unresponsive in their beds and feeling nauseous herself just before 8 a.m. today.

They apparently were the victims of carbon monoxide poisoning, authorities say.

Florissant police were called at 7:48 a.m. to a home in the 3500 block of Stonehaven Drive. When they arrived, along with firefighters from the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District, they found the woman carrying children out of the home.

The victims ranged in age from less than 1 years old to 44, police said. It was unclear how many members of the family were home at the time. Firefighters believed there were seven victims, including the mother, and police believed there were nine — but all were conscious and responsive before being taken to area hospitals by ambulance, officials said.

Firefighters believe carbon monoxide began leaking into the house because the attic fan was running and the windows were closed, which caused the exhaust from the furnace to be pulled back into the house.

“The fan is going to need to draw air from somewhere, and when you close the windows, it’s powerful enough to create a down-draft effect on the flue,” said Deputy Chief Rick Ruhmann of the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District. “You’ve basically got one unit working against another.”

Ruhmann said the mother remembered getting up in the night to turn on the furnace because the house had grown cool overnight. She may not have known the attic fan was still on, or that the windows were closed, creating the potentially deadly conditions, Ruhmann said.

Investigators recreated the scenario after all of the victims were taken to area hospitals by ambulance for observation by closing all of the windows and turning on the furnace, Ruhmann said.

“We were all just standing there with our mouths open,” he said. “We could see how that fan was just pulling the flames out of the unit. They’re supposed to be burning straight up into the flue, and instead, they’re being pulled out the front of the furnace.”

And the draft created by the attic fan pulls the flame away from the flue consistently enough to avoid activating the flame sensor on most units, Ruhmann said.

“There are seven or eight people that are very lucky that someone woke up and got the ball rolling to get emergency personnel over there,” Ruhmann said. “If anything good comes out of this, maybe people will learn that when using attic fans, just be conscious that your furnace is off and your appliances are checked every year in the fall and the spring.

“It is safer and cheaper to operate when they are checked regularly and make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detector.”

The home in this case did not have a carbon monoxide detector, said Florissant Officer Andy Haarmann.

“When the mother woke up, she thought it was unusual that she was the only one up,” he said. “Mom really saved the day on Mother’s Day. Had she not woken up, this would have been a really serious situation. It was a very close call.”

Christine Byers is a crime reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.