After calls to 911, Allen Benedict residents fear carbon monoxide’s health threats

Whitney Craig’s heater burst into flames on the day before Thanksgiving.

“It’s shooting out fire,” Craig told a 911 dispatcher. “I got a 3-year-old baby and it smells like gas up in here.”

Her child has asthma, she said.

“I’m shaking,” she said as she gathered her child and got out of the apartment at Allen Benedict Court. Before she got out, she told 911 that the same thing happened last year.

Her call was one of more than a dozen to 911 from Allen Benedict Court residents who reported gas leaks or fires at the public housing community near Harden and Read streets in 2018 and early 2019. Like Craig, some residents said they were scared because of the gas odor or the fire they thought might destroy home and their neighbors’.

Of the 14 emergency calls between February 2018 and January 2019, 11 were about the smell of gas inside people’s homes. In a February 2018 call, the odor became so strong a woman told the dispatcher she had to leave her home and stay with her sister. Others called because of fires coming from gas appliances.

Columbia Fire Department officials clear apartments at Allen Benedict Court after a gas leaked was discovered Friday Jan. 18, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

While fire is one hazard of malfunctioning gas appliances such as the water heaters and stoves found in Allen Benedict Court, a more deadly danger is carbon monoxide.

The odorless and colorless gas killed two Allen Benedict Court residents last month, authorities said. After the deaths of 61-year-old Calvin Witherspoon Jr. and Derrick Caldwell Roper, 30, on Jan. 17, authorities found elevated gas levels in more than 60 other apartments and ordered the evacuation of all residents.

While Roper and Witherspoon lived in units J1 and J3, the Columbia Fire Department determined the carbon monoxide that killed them came from unit J2. The morning before Witherspoon and Roper’s bodies were found, emergency responders took a person from J2 to the hospital with “effects from the gas leaks,” a Columbia Police Department report said.

While elevated levels of carbon monoxide are deadly, people exposed to lower doses still face health threats. Long-term exposure can cause permanent health problems.

Gas wounds

At 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 16, 2019 Columbia’s 911 received a call about a man at Allen Benedict Court who had passed out and was bleeding from his head. The man had passed out in building J, the same building where Roper and Witherspoon would be found dead the next day.

Dizziness is one of the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure, according to Dr. Selim Suner.

Suner, a professor at Brown University, has researched how carbon monoxide affects people.

The gas is common in the environment, a product of almost anything burned, such as cigarettes, as well as vehicle exhaust and natural gas that heats up homes, Suner said. The body even produces small amounts.

“Our bodies can handle and initially detoxify low levels of carbon monoxide,” Suner said.

While research is still being done to understand what happens to people who are exposed to low levels of the gas over long periods, it is known that symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and headaches are typical after breathing carbon monoxide. People also may feel fatigue or malaise.

Rodricus Walker suffered those symptoms about a month before Roper and Witherspoon died. Walker, who lived in building G, said he smelled a strong odor of gas in his place and became dizzy and nauseated. The symptoms became so severe he went to the hospital.

“I had to get up out of there,” Walker told The State on June 18, the day the public housing complex was evacuated.

While natural gas has an unpleasant odor, it won’t cause Walker’s symptoms. Still, any appliance that doesn’t properly burn or vent natural gas can result in a build up of carbon monoxide.

Keith Wise walks through his home one more time before leaving Allen Benedict Court after a gas leaked was discovered Friday Jan. 18, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Columbia Fire Department officials evacuated hundreds of residents. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Bob Coble, a lawyer for the Columbia Housing Authority, which oversees and maintains Allen Benedict Court, said the agency recognizes that many of the 911 calls stemmed from faulty appliances, gas scents and fires. Looking into those issues will be a part of an independent and comprehensive review of the public housing complex and the factors that led to the two deaths, which the authority’s board recently voted to undertake.

Without a scent or color, carbon monoxide poisoning can mask itself as any other common illness.

“People don’t often suspect carbon monoxide poisoning,” Suner said. “They write it off as some other sickness (like) coming down with some type of the virus. ... That’s very typical. That’s the rule more than the exception.”

While serving at a Rhode Island hospital, Suner directed that all patients be tested for carbon monoxide. The hospital tested tens of thousands of people, he said. If a patient had a sprained ankle or a gash from from falling, the patient would be tested. Many times, staffers found patients with higher than normal levels of the poisonous substance. The fire department would go to the patients’ homes to check the air.

“Lo and behold it’s a faulty water heater spewing carbon monoxide in the house,” Suner said.

While some people may be able to replace the water heater or another source of the gas, Walker, the Allen Benedict Court resident, said all he could do was open his windows.

Problems that “don’t come to light”

Two weeks ago, people attending a Columbia Housing Authority board meeting said they worried about the health of residents who lived at Allen Benedict Court.

One woman said her grandfather had lived at the public housing complex for 49 years and she worried how the conditions might have hurt him in ways they didn’t know.

Another person said now that she knows carbon monoxide was discovered in the Allen Benedict apartments, she wonders if it may have might aggravated her elderly sister’s chronic pulmonary disease.

Several other people said they also worried how the gas might have affected their relatives without anyone knowing.

Research is beginning to show that long-term exposure to carbon monoxide might be a concern.

Low level carbon monoxide exposure over time has shown some evidence of being linked to problems with brain function, according to Robin Dawson, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s nursing school. She’s also focused on carbon monoxide’s health effects.

Children, the elderly and people with chronic conditions are more susceptible to the long-terms effects.

“They’re going to have less reserve and resiliency,” Dawson said.

While carbon monoxide wouldn’t cause asthma, Dawson said, “It’ll exacerbate it.”

The State asked the Columbia Housing Authority if a plan is being put together to monitor the health of former Allen Benedict Court residents given the effects of carbon monoxide. The authority had not responded by Saturday afternoon.

Carbon monoxide could affect a child’s development in other ways, according to Suner. Cognitive and nervous systems that are still forming in kids can be harmed by the gas even at low levels. Pregnant women and fetuses are also disproportionately affected by carbon monoxide.

A couple of the known long-term effects of low or high level exposure to the gas is memory loss and heart damage, Suner said.

The problems brought on by carbon monoxide “are sometimes occult,” Suner said. “They don’t come to light.”

For Suner and Dawson a frustrating part of the damage caused by carbon monoxide exposure is that it is preventable.

Carbon monoxide detectors are fairly affordable, they said, and they’re effective. Some detectors sell for less than $20.

“People know the dangers of this,” Dawson said. “There has to be a willingness to do something about it.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.