Carbon Monoxide

The rent was dirt cheap, but you could smell the sulfur from the front porch. I’d been looking for a place during the winter, and the apartment was in the same building as a few friends.

The smell turned me off, but I’d dealt with it before. Like when I was working at the Onion factory and had sulfur water at home… it sucked, but I lived. This time, though, my family kept telling me, “don’t sleep there until you get a CO detector.” I trust my family, so while I was still unpacking my stuff, I ran to the Wal-Mart a town and a half over and got one for $20.

Before I go further, let me give you a little history. In the Anthracite Coal Region, and we burn hard coal to make it through the winters. It’s local and relatively cheap.

Anthracite’s been used to heat homes since they figured out how to burn the stuff. At one point, most of America was burning it. And it all came from right here. People immigrated into patch towns (company towns) to mine it. Philly’s economy used to be based around exporting our coal. Now, you might burn your oil or natural gas. But when I look out the window, I still see a huge pile of coal that’s bigger than anything in town. The miners are still on the other side of the mountain working.

Coal Hill Trevorton
“Coal Hill” in Trevorton

With a bad setup, though, coal can put off some bad stuff. Sulfur itself is pretty harmless, but it’s usually a sign there’s carbon monoxide, a poison. It’s got no scent or taste, but it can kill you. Think of the movies when someone kills themselves in the garage with car exhaust… same stuff. One of the worst symptoms is confusion.

On with the story. When I got back to the new apartment, I popped the batteries into the detector. No surprise, it beeped like crazy. The landlord came by and was pissed, trying to come up with all sorts of reasons why everything was fine. Like, “but your apartment is the furthest away from the furnace!”. Well no shit, that makes it pretty bad then, huh? I was clear that he had to deal with it. He said he’d get a detector and check it out later.

My friends had already been living here, and it’d been smelling this way for a long time. They’d just cope with it til winter was over. You could probably.. sorta.. get used to it. But trust me, the smell was overpowering.

The landlord got a detector, and left it beeping in the basement. Someone else in the building, hearing my news and the beeping, called  the volunteer fire department. When they showed up and tested the air, they evacuated the building. They said the Monoxide levels were too high for even temporary exposure. It was a dramatic winter scene, the block filled with fire trucks and the residents being loaded into ambulances to get blood-work done at the hospital.

Turns out, the chimney had been clogged. All the furnace exhaust had been going right back into the building. The landlord had it fixed pretty soon. I’m sure there’s plenty other places in town with the same problem.

Part of me, a bigger part than I want to admit, wanted to ignore the sulfur. No one else had said anything. I didn’t have the lease signed yet, no back-up place to go live, and didn’t want to start a bad relationship with the landlord. But you can’t settle for stuff like this, even though people do every day. Every one of us deserves a place to live that’s not going to poison us, but sometimes you’ve gotta stir things up to make that real. That’s why I’m an agitator— I stand up for myself and others because it’s the right thing to do, not the easiest.


Everybody’s blood-work came back good. Temporary symptoms went away.


Thanks for reading the blog. I’m glad I got it started. Use the comments to tell me about anything you wanna see me write about. I’m looking for some help editing this stuff, too. Thanks!


  1. I appreciate the way you stand up for yourself and dont let people around you settle for being treated shitty, either.

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