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Source of high carbon monoxide levels that sickened dozens at Teamsters arena still unclear

FARGO - A piercing headache took hold of Elijah Duncan as he drove home after playing pickup hockey Sunday night at Teamsters arena. The pain was so bad he had to look away from headlights on the road.

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Youth hockey coach Elijah Duncan, 20, is sidelined at practice Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, at Veterans Memorial Arena in West Fargo after being sickened by carbon monoxide Sunday in the Teamsters Arena in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO – A piercing headache took hold of Elijah Duncan as he drove home after playing pickup hockey Sunday night at Teamsters arena. The pain was so bad he had to look away from headlights on the road.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” said Duncan, 20. “I just thought it was a really bad migraine.”

Monday morning, Duncan learned that he was one of dozens at the rink, including many youth hockey players, who suffered headaches and nausea from carbon monoxide poisoning.

This sort of problem arises occasionally at indoor rinks around the country. Over the weekend in central Wisconsin, more than 80 people at a minor league hockey game were sickened by unsafe levels of carbon monoxide inside the rink.

North Dakota is among the majority of states that do not have laws regulating air quality at ice rinks. A few states, including Minnesota, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, do have such regulations, according to a national group called Serving The American Rinks.


The source of carbon monoxide is often the internal-combustion engines of ice resurfacing machines and ice edgers. What caused the dangerous levels of the potentially deadly gas at Teamsters arena is not yet clear.

Jeff Lockhart, operations manager for the Fargo Youth Hockey Association, which owns the arena, said all of the equipment was inspected and cleared by Xcel Energy on Monday. And only slight adjustments needed to be made to the rink’s Zamboni machine, he said.

Lockhart thought it was possible the lack of air movement that created heavy fog in the region Sunday could have contributed to problems with ventilating the arena.


‘The same sickness’


Battalion Chief Lee Soeth said a Fargo fire crew found high levels of carbon monoxide at Teamsters arena late Sunday. Firefighters were called there about 11:30 p.m. after Sanford Health reported symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning in at least three emergency room patients who were at the arena.

Duncan, who coaches youth hockey, said he went to the hospital Monday morning and found out he had an elevated level of carbon monoxide in his system. He was treated with oxygen for an hour and released in the afternoon.


Lockhart said the carbon monoxide reading in the arena was at zero parts per million Monday. Despite the low reading, a large garage door was opened to allow air flow once every hour to avoid a repeat of Sunday’s incident.

“We’re going to learn from why it happened and make sure it never happens again,” he said.

Lockhart spent Monday reaching out to all of the players who participated in the seven games the arena hosted Sunday.

Among those affected were Leah Staahl, her husband and their two sons, ages 7 and 10. They all had symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning after spending a few hours at the arena, she said.

The West Fargo family watched their older son play for the West Fargo Stampede in a squirt-level game Sunday afternoon. In the first and second periods, six kids came off the ice complaining of severe headaches and nausea, Staahl said.

“How can all these kids be getting the same sickness minutes apart?” she asked herself.

By the third period, her son’s team had barely enough skaters to play, and the remaining kids were lethargic and not feeling well, she said.

Taking into account what she’s heard from other teams, Staahl estimated that dozens became sick. Many of the young players stayed home from school Monday, she said.


“We as parents have a lot of questions regarding if there were operational detectors in place, what are they set at to alert staff?” she wrote in an email.

Ryan Evenson, who coaches the Stampede’s peewee A team, said 13 of his 16 players became ill after their game, which was before the squirt game.

“There was no indication whatsoever that something was wrong until kids just started going down,” he said.


Air quality rules


Minnesota has had rules about air quality at indoor rinks since 1973, said Dan Tranter, supervisor of the indoor air unit at the state Department of Health “There was a lot of problems in the late ’60s, early ’70s. That prompted our Legislature to pass a law that instructed our (health) commissioner to create rules,” he said.

Minnesota ice rinks are required to regularly test air quality if they’re using resurfacing machines that run on propane or gas. If carbon monoxide levels are too high, rinks need to do whatever’s necessary to fix the problem or else face enforcement action, Tranter said.


Along with carbon monoxide, Minnesota regulates levels of nitrogen dioxide, another byproduct of internal-combustion engines, that can trigger asthma attacks at low levels and cause pneumonia-like symptoms at higher levels, he said.

North Dakota has no enforceable levels for air quality inside ice rinks. Instead, the state takes an educational approach to the issue, said Justin Otto, indoor air quality coordinator for the state Department of Health.

Otto said the agency plans to send a memo to owners and operators of arenas in the state, reminding them of the dangers of carbon monoxide. “We send out this memo from time to time because it is a concern, and it’s something that needs to be monitored routinely,” he said.

Grant Larson, director of environmental health for Fargo-Cass Public Health, said that as a courtesy his inspectors conduct twice-yearly checks of air quality at rinks in Fargo. The Teamsters arena was last checked in June, but inspectors have not been there this winter, he said.

The Fargo Park District has carbon monoxide monitors at its three indoor skating facilities, said Clay Whittlesey, the district’s director of recreation.

The monitors trigger an alarm when the carbon monoxide level gets too high and fans start to ventilate the facilities. “I don’t think they’ve ever gone off when we’ve had the public in the building,” said Whittlesey, who’s been with the district for 25 years.

Lockhart said Teamsters arena has two carbon monoxide monitors on the wall, as well as one worn by the Zamboni driver. He said he’s looking to bring the arena in line with Minnesota’s regulations .



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