A Mother's Plea to Congress: Warn People About Carbon Monoxide

On Capitol Hill, a woman tells her painful story, urges better warnings.

December 17, 2009, 4:40 PM

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17. 2009—, 2009 -- Even after 14 years, Cheryl Burt still hears the labored breathing of her 16-month-old son Zach. She says she felt helpless to save him as he died in his sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Burt lost two of her three children that night to something she never even thought was a problem.

"When you have carbon monoxide in your home, you cannot see it. You cannot taste it. You cannot smell it. You will feel its effects – a headache, nausea, dizziness – but you don't realize that you're being poisoned," she told Congress today.

"I had smoke alarms in my home. I used safety gates and child locks, and I thought my home was safe. I was wrong. On this particular evening, I progressively got sicker and sicker, with what I thought was a family-sized case of the flu," she testified.

A Senate subcommittee today looked into the problem of carbon monoxide poisoning, the so-called "silent killer." Carbon monoxide poisoning kills 500 Americans each year and sends 20,000 to emergency rooms. Children are particularly susceptible.

Burt told her own story to the subcommittee in an effort to help others. "I never thought that we were being poisoned. By the time I did realize something was terribly wrong, I had no idea just how terribly wrong it was. I didn't realize that my babies were dying, just rooms away from me. I couldn't help them, or even help myself," she said.

"A carbon monoxide alarm would have saved my children's lives. But I didn't have one in my home. So that night, my two youngest children died in their sleep from CO poisoning due to a malfunctioning furnace that was venting dangerous levels of CO throughout our home," Burt said.

She told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who held the hearing, that her children are the reasons she supports legislation to raise awareness about carbon monoxide poisoning.

"I can give you three very good, very precious reasons for my support: Nicholas Todd Burt, Zachary Todd Burt, and Ryan Todd Burt," she said as she wiped away tears.

"My little Nick turned four years old just 8 days before his death. In fact, we had been too sick to have his birthday party. I now know that our illness was really the beginning of CO poisoning. But at the time, we decided to wait to celebrate once we all 'got better.' That day never came. He is reason number one."

"Reason number two is Zach. Zach was just shy of 16 months old when he died. I was up with Zach many, many times during that horrible night. Looking back, I should have realized that something was very, very wrong in my home, but I was too sick, too poisoned to know. Instead, it was Zach who I could not pick up to rock back to sleep. It was Zach who was having trouble breathing," she said.

"But the carbon monoxide made me too weak to lift him or soothe him. Instead, I hung onto his crib rails, trying to keep myself standing, trying to keep from passing out, and I prayed that he would go back to sleep. I listened to his labored breath, but was unable to comprehend the danger my baby was in, unable to realize he that was dying."

"Now, I listen to Zach's labored breathing every night in my sleep. I would give anything to have that night back, to have been able to think clearly and save my baby," she testified.

"Reason number three is Ryan. He was five and a half when we were poisoned. He barely survived. He has lived the past 14 years with the knowledge that while he lived, his two brothers died right next to him."

Burt said she wishes she had known more about carbon monoxide poisoning at the time. "What haunts me is that I could have prevented their deaths. As a mother, I feel I should have prevented it. I knew a little about carbon monoxide alarms, but didn't realize their life-saving value," she said

"In fact, just a few weeks before this incident happened, I was shopping for the holidays with a friend, and we talked about buying alarms. I opted to buy my son another toy truck instead. Now I have the truck, but I don't have my son."

Alan Korn, Executive Director of Safe Kids USA, also testified at the hearing and echoed Burt's concern.

"The frustrating thing about CO poisonings is that many of these incidents can be prevented," he said. "The single most effective safety device available to reduce injuries and fatalities related to carbon monoxide poisonings is a CO alarm."

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