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Police look for the cause of woman’s pipe repair death

Updated: 2013-03-09T02:52:36Z

By CHRISTINE VENDEL

The Kansas City Star

The kitchen sink drain hadn’t worked in a week.

Peggy Sutton figured a clog had blocked the pipe again. She disassembled the plumbing under the sink with help from her roommate Bernice Weaver, then Sutton ran errands and Weaver went to work. They left the plumbing in pieces since they planned to use a snake later that night to clear the pipe.

When Sutton returned home about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the 300 block of North Belmont Boulevard, the powerful stench of sewer gas greeted her. She found Weaver collapsed on the kitchen floor, with her face still under the sink. A bottle of heavy-duty drain cleaner with a loosened lid sat on the floor nearby amid tools and pieces of pipe.

Weaver, 44, was pronounced dead at a hospital. Police told The Star on Friday that preliminary autopsy results indicated she suffocated. Police believe toxic vapors that collected in the confined area under the sink are to blame.

The suffocating cloud could have come from sewer gas, which is primarily hydrogen sulfide and methane, or from a toxic mix of drain cleaner and another chemical, which also produces hydrogen sulfide, experts said. Hydrogen sulfide is responsible for the rotten egg smell associated with sewer gas.

The clog in the pipe is believed to be in the basement, far from the kitchen sink. The pipe is probably filled with decomposing material producing sewer gas, experts said.

Police officers said the sewer gas smell overpowered them when they arrived Wednesday, like a slap in the face. One sergeant compared it to sticking his head in the holding tank of a portable toilet and drawing a deep breath.

The distinctive smell alerts most residents that they have a plumbing problem, but at high levels the gas can paralyze a person’s sense of smell. After that, the gas can have a “knockout effect,” said Tama Sawyer, director of the poison control center at the University of Kansas Hospital.

“You’re awake,” she said. “And the next moment you’re unconscious.”

The unconscious victim then breathes in more of the gas as it starves the victim’s cells of life-sustaining oxygen, similar to the way carbon monoxide kills. The gas is also heavier than oxygen, so it gathers low in a room, most concentrated near the floor, Sawyer said.

Dying from exposure to hydrogen sulfide in a residence is rare, Sawyer said. Such deaths are more likely seen in industrial settings, she said.

“It’s highly unusual to be in such a high concentration in a home,” she said. “The air should be circulating in a home.”

The windows and doors were closed at the small rented home where Weaver died.

Sawyer said the incident should remind residents to ventilate if they detect sewer gas and also to avoid mixing chemicals. She said using drain cleaner for a clogged pipe is OK, but not if another chemical has been tried first.

“We’ll have people put bleach or something in to clean the pipe or stop the smell,” she said. “But that obviously doesn’t clear the pipe. Then they’ll add the drain cleaner.”

The person has then unwittingly created toxic hydrogen sulfide, she said.

Police are still awaiting final toxicology results from the medical examiner that could further explain what happened to Weaver.

City inspectors visited the home Friday with the homeowner. They told the homeowner to clear the clogged pipe, remove some trash from the kitchen and porch, and fix some electrical issues in the basement. But they said the home was safe for Sutton to occupy.

Sutton is grieving the loss of Weaver, who had been staying in Sutton’s rented home for about two months. Before that, Weaver was homeless and living in a tent in the woods.

The women planned to buy a home together, Sutton said. Weaver worked odd jobs and had several children and grandchildren.

Sutton didn’t know why Weaver was working on the sink when they were supposed to tackle the project together.

“I wish I could have been here to save her,” Sutton said. “I don’t know why she used the Liquid Fire (drain cleaner.) We agreed we were going to use the snake.”

On Friday afternoon, Sutton pointed to her sink, still filled with backed-up, dirty water.

“She died for this,” Sutton said. “She died for nothing.”

To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send email to cvendel@kcstar.com.

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