Carbon Monoxide Detection: Past, Present, and Future

Carbon Monoxide Detection: Past, Present, and Future

This piece was originally published in the May 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Wendy Gifford, Consultant, Codes, Standards, Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, Nest Labs, Inc.
John Steele, Director of State Government Affairs, Tyco International (U.S.) Inc.

Illustration by Bill Green

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and toxic gas that leaks into the air from the malfunctioning furnaces, hot water heaters, stoves, fireplaces, and other fuel-burning appliances. Because it is undetectable by human senses, it is known as the silent killer.

People may not realize they are being exposed to it when they feel flu-like symptoms such as headaches, light-headedness, or nausea. In extreme cases, victims can suffer long-term mental impairment and even death. These detrimental health effects depend on the length of exposure to CO, blood concentration levels of CO, and an individual’s underlying health.

In 1992, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) identified CO poisoning deaths as a priority. Working with Underwriters Laboratories, the commission helped develop specifications for a device that could sense the gas and protect consumers in their homes. UL Standard 2034 was published in April 1992, and the first battery-operated CO alarm was on the market in the fall of 1993.

While the spread of this life-saving device parallels that of smoke detection, which came to homes about 25 years earlier, CO protection still lags, partly as a result of slower adoption of requirements for installation.

Killer Statistics

In 2009, the International Residential Code first required CO alarms for new detached one- and two-family dwellings and townhomes (not more than three stories). Current penetration of smoke alarms in homes is estimated at 96 percent, according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The CPSC estimates the rate for CO alarms at less than 50 percent, even though more than 40 states have some sort of requirements for residential installation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 430 persons each year die from unintentional CO poisoning. Because it deprives the body of much-needed oxygen, those who survive an exposure may exhibit long-term cognitive, physical, and psychological effects.

Like fire deaths, CO deaths and injuries extend beyond the home. By 2012, the International Building Code and the International Fire Code required CO protection in new hotels, apartment buildings, dormitories, hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. In 2015, protection for new K-12 schools was added. Similar requirements are now in NFPA 1, 101, and 5000. While these requirements are important, they also leave many existing properties unprotected.

Stating the Obvious

Elected officials and other policymakers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect the public from CO poisoning. This has led to the passage of laws ranging in scope from homes and K-12 schools to hotels and commercial buildings. Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, and Maryland have laws requiring CO detectors in schools; California requires them only in new schools. Twelve states have CO detection requirements for hotels and motels.

New York has the most comprehensive requirements in the nation, covering commercial buildings, restaurants, schools, hotels, and motels.

In nearby New Jersey, A4073 was signed into law in November 2015. The law expanded that state’s CO requirements beyond hotels, one- and two-family dwellings, and apartment buildings to include all new and existing commercial occupancies having a fuel-burning appliance or attached garage. Later this year, the New Jersey Division of Codes and Standards will codify the 2015 law.

In both New York and New Jersey, the laws are in response to CO-caused deaths, in a restaurant and a recording studio, respectively.

Safety legislation, however, should not be a response to loss of life. NEMA’s Fire, Life Safety, Security and Emergency Communications Section is committed to persuading state legislatures and code-making bodies to prevent—not react to—such tragedies. Policymakers may have differing views from state to state, and even within a state, about government’s role in mandating safety. Limited state budgets may also dictate other priorities.

The above challenges notwithstanding, attaining additional state detection requirements is a priority for NEMA. The work includes

  • expanding CO protection within the International Code Council (ICC) building codes and the NFPA installation codes;
  • supporting state adoption of up-to-date ICC codes by enabling legislation and working within the state level regulatory process; and
  • advocating for legislation to support CO protection in areas not addressed by current codes, such as existing homes, schools, and places of assembly.

NEMA staff and member companies are actively engaged in a process that includes tracking proposed legislation; meeting with state legislators, agency officials, and their staffs; recruiting life-safety allies; and hiring lobbyists when necessary.

NEMA stands prepared to respond with information and support when headline-making CO events trigger legislative interest. Beyond that, we will continue efforts to raise awareness of the legislative and code requirements that might prevent such tragedies.

It should not take another 25 years to fully protect citizens from the dangers of CO poisoning at home, work, or leisure.


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