'He was basically at death's door': Canadian teen poisoned by carbon monoxide on the job. What to know about the 'silent killer'

Wil Krotenko was working at his local Co-op grocery store when he started feeling "lightheaded and dizzy."

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The exterior of a Co-op grocery store located in Calgary. (Photo via Getty Images)
Co-op has more than 240 locations, mostly across Western Canada. (Photo via Getty Images)

A Saskatchewan grocery store is facing some heat after one of its employees suffered severe carbon monoxide poisoning.

Last summer, Wil Krotenko started his first part-time job in the meat department of his local Co-op grocery store in Canora, Sask. But near the start of his shift on Oct. 23, the then 14-year-old started feeling sick when his manager asked him to clean the enclosed areas of the meat department with a gas-powered pressure washer.

"I started feeling lightheaded and dizzy," Krotenko explained to CBC's Go Public, noting he staggered to the front of the store. "And I guess that's when I collapsed."

Soon after, he was airlifted to Edmonton's Misericordia Community Hospital, where health-care professionals discovered he had severe carbon monoxide poisoning. Krotenko spent hours in a hyperbaric chamber, a treatment used to help speed up healing of serious poisoning cases.

"He was basically at death's door," Krotenko's father, Kurt said. "If he would have passed out in that meat department alone with the pressure washer on … he could have been dead right there."

Carbon monoxide levels in the space where Krotenko was working were up to 60 times higher than what's considered safe over an eight hour period under Saskatchewan's occupational health regulations, a report indicated. Still, the employer faced no consequences besides being told to fix the any issues.

Worker cleaning driveway with gasoline high pressure washer. (Photo via Getty Images)
Gas pressure washers should never be used in enclosed spaces, even if you open windows. (Photo via Getty Images)

The day before Krotenko was poisoned, another teenaged employee went home while also trying to clean using the gas pressure washer. Go Public reported a supervisor was aware of that incident and that the equipment wasn't safe for use. Both teens were reportedly left unsupervised and were not trained to use the pressure washer.

Now, Krotenko and his parents say he's been experiencing a variety of health problems since being poisoned. For one, he sometimes gets cluster headaches, which are severely painful, short headaches that occur in a row, lasting between 15 minutes and three hours.

But what exactly is carbon monoxide poisoning, and should you be worried about experiencing a similar incident? Read on to learn more about the health hazard.

When there's too much carbon monoxide in the air, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with the gas. Carbon monoxide is produced when you burn gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel, and it only worsens in enclosed spaces.

What's dangerous about carbon monoxide is that it's odourless, tasteless and colourless. It's sometimes referred to as the "silent killer," and in many cases, people will ignore early signs of poisoning and eventually lose consciousness.

While carbon monoxide can't be detected by our senses, there are physical symptoms that indicated whether a person has been exposed to high levels of the gas. At low levels, carbon monoxide poisoning may resemble flu symptoms, including tiredness, headaches, shortness of breath and impaired motor functions, according to Health Canada.

However, higher levels of carbon monoxide poisoning can include dizziness, chest pain, poor vision, difficulty thinking, convulsions, loss of consciousness as well as coma or death. It's especially dangerous for children and people with preexisting conditions, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Tired man who just woke up, with low energy and a headache. (Photo via Getty Images)
Low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning may include symptoms like tiredness, headaches or shortness of breath. (Photo via Getty Images)

While most carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms occur immediately, sometimes the effects don't arise until weeks later. When you're exposed to the gas, the amount of time you have before experiencing certain symptoms like loss of consciousness depends on various factors, including how large the space is and whether it has proper ventilation.

Newfoundland-based anesthesiologist and specialist in hyperbaric medicine Dr. Ken LeDez previously told Yahoo Canada that opening a door or window may not be enough to prevent damage. He added carbon monoxide poisoning can cause "severe neurologic damage," including conditions like depression, severe memory loss and "Parkinson's disease-type symptoms." Moreover, he noted it's important to manage any prolonged symptoms — such as dizziness or impaired cognitions — with treatment as soon as possible.

"I've seen many, many patients who have not sought treatment, who have had long-term consequences and are basically unable to work ever again," he shared.

woman with blonde hair in sweater with hand on wall leaning in pain from nausea, dizziness, vomiting, tiredness, chest pain and headaches
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, dizziness, vomiting, tiredness, chest pain and headaches (Photo via Getty Images).

If you believe someone has been affected by carbon monoxide poisoning, make sure to open windows and doors quickly, or evacuate the home and call 911. Firefighters have the necessary equipment to measure the levels of carbon monoxide in the home.

Make sure you also protect yourself by going outside and getting fresh air after being in the affected space.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is preventable with proper tools and maintenance. The most important way to keep your family safe is by outfitting your home with a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector. You should install one on each level of your home and near the bedrooms, replacing the batteries twice a year.

The Canadian Red Cross shared it's also important to have fuel-based appliances and equipment serviced annually by a qualified professional and to never run a vehicle inside a garage. Moreover, look out for other people in your community by checking in on them if you haven't seen them in a while.

"Certainly neighbours have rescued lots of people in my experience," LeDez added.

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