Yesterday, an elementary school in Atlanta, GA was evacuated due to a carbon monoxide (CO) leak that apparently resulted from a faulty furnace. CO levels spiked to 1,700 parts per million, far exceeding levels at which CO alarms and detectors would have triggered. News reports indicate that 43 children and 10 adults were sent to local hospitals to be evaluated for CO poisoning after experiencing common symptoms of CO, including headaches, nausea, and stomachaches.
The school did not have CO detectors installed. Nor were they were required by law to do so. As an NBC TODAY Show report revealed, only two states–Connecticut and Maryland–require the installation of CO detectors in schools.
The incident in Atlanta is not an isolated one. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) conducted an analysis of non-fire CO incidents reported for the year 2005 which showed 260 total CO incidents reported nationwide in educational occupancies. Of these, 150 incidents occurred in occupancies for preschool through grade 12. In 2012 alone, there have been CO incidents reported at schools in Waterford, CT; Chicago, IL; Marshfield, MA; Fredericksburg, MD; Cape Girardeau, MO; Meredith, NH; Madill, OK; Glen Rock, PA; Philadelphia, PA; Dallas, TX; and Heber, UT. While many of these instances were caused by malfunctioning boilers, furnaces, water heaters, and gas appliances, other potential sources of CO exist in schools, including gas-fired clothes washers and dryers, vehicles left idling in loading docks near HVAC intake systems, and the use of gas-fired tools or equipment in a non-ventilated space (such as for cleaning purposes).
Thankfully, no deaths or serious injuries have resulted from these incidents to date, but should we assume that will always be the case? Or that it is an insufficient reason to justify taking any action?
Carbon monoxide is known as the "silent killer" because it is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and poisonous. It is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas. To date, 39 states have enacted legislation or code requirements to effectuate the installation of CO detection devices in homes, apartment buildings, hotels/motels, and other residential and commercial occupancies. NEMA has worked with other life safety advocates to advance these requirements, and continues to educate lawmakers on the potential CO dangers lurking in public schools.
Children, faculty, and school support staff need to be protected when they are away from their homes. Installing CO detection systems in schools has the potential to save lives, prevent illness, and lessen time away from school. Legislative and code-making bodies should recognize these risks and take action to mitigate them.
For more information on carbon monoxide and other fire and life safety issues, please visit www.lifesafetysolutionsonline.com.