Residents reminded to test, replace CO alarms as Ontario marks 9th CO Awareness Week

A combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Gado/Getty Images

Tuesday marked the start of Ontario’s ninth annual Carbon Monoxide (CO) Awareness Week, held to highlight the dangers of the poisonous gas and to remind the public of the law mandating CO alarms inside homes.

Exposure to the invisible, odourless and tasteless gas, dubbed the “silent killer,” can result in flu-like symptoms but without the elevated body temperature, the province says, including headaches, nausea, dizziness and breathlessness, as well as possible loss of consciousness and death.

It was roughly nine years ago when the Hawkins Gignac Act passed through Queen’s Park, mandating CO alarms near sleeping areas in Ontario homes with fuel-burning appliances, fireplaces or attached garages.

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The bill, tabled by Oxford PC MPP Ernie Hardeman, was named in honour of OPP Const. Laurie Hawkins (nee Gignac), 41, her husband Richard, 40, and their children, 14-year-old Cassandra and 12-year-old Jordan, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2008.

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Later investigation revealed the Woodstock family, who did not have a carbon monoxide detector, died after the vent leading from a gas fireplace to the chimney had become blocked over time by a carbon buildup, causing the gas to seep back into the home.

Richard and the couple’s two children were pronounced dead the same day. Hawkins survived and was hospitalized in severe critical condition, but died eight days later. Police had visited the family’s home after Hawkins failed to show up for work.

“My family and I think about it almost every day. It’s something that was such a shock 14 years ago that it just reverberates right through ’til today,” said John Gignac, Hawkins’ uncle, on Wednesday.

“It’s like they died just yesterday.”

Gignac, a former Brantford fire captain, later started the non-profit Hawkins-Gignac Foundation for Carbon Monoxide Education in the family’s honour, and helped get the Hawkins Gignac Act passed through the Ontario legislature, a process that took several years and saw the proclamation of CO Awareness Week, which starts every Nov. 1.

“When we first started, it was only around 20 per cent of Ontario people knew about carbon monoxide or had an alarm. Fast forward to today, we’re up to about 80 per cent and most people are educated about the dangers of carbon monoxide,” he said.

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Laws mandating carbon monoxide alarms are in place in several provinces, including Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and the Yukon, he says.

“Now we’re working down on the eastern provinces, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, and hopefully we’ll get the law passed right across Canada sooner or later,” he said.

“To me, it doesn’t happen fast enough. I just can’t believe that something as simple as putting a CO alarm in your home, (that it) can be so difficult to pass a law. The law would definitely get the education in every province kick-started.”

Carbon monoxide alarms, like smoke detectors, should be checked and replaced regularly. Gignac says CO alarms should be tested at least once per month, and should be replaced every seven to 10 years.

“I was a captain on the fire department for 34 years. I carry the message of smoke alarms, and now, of course, being executive director (of the Hawkins-Gignac Foundation), CO alarms,” he said.

“It’s a very daunting task of trying to get everybody to pay attention and put proper working alarms in their homes. But it’s a task that I’m up to, and I’ll keep going until everybody has one, and we can protect as many families as we possibly can.”

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The province says approximately 65 per cent of CO-related injuries and deaths occur in the home. At least 579 people died of accidental poisoning by and exposure to carbon monoxide in Canada between 2008 and 2020, according to figures from Statistics Canada.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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