Private residences are supposed to have carbon-monoxide monitors, at least in the state of Colorado, but public buildings – including schools where children spend many hours each day – are not required to have detectors for the poisonous gas.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can be deadly at high levels within minutes, or at lower levels over lengthier exposures. Most incidents of CO poisoning occur during winter months, when the use of fuel-burning appliances increases.
Regulations about detectors have focused on the places and times that people sleep because that is when they are most vulnerable.
However, the laws regarding CO monitors in public places may be re-examined after a frightening incident Nov. 18 at the Montezuma Creek Elementary School sent 43 people to area hospitals because of exposure to the gas. All have reportedly recovered.
The incident brought attention to the fact that no states in the Four Corners region require CO monitors in schools. In fact, in the entire United States, only Connecticut and Maryland require them.
“I wish they were required because over time it saves lives and significantly increases chances of survival,” said Cortez Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde. “The urgent-response time to schools in Montezuma County from the Cortez Fire District 911 system is five minutes.”
Colorado homeowners are required to install carbon-monoxide monitors in new residential buildings that use fossil fuels, as well as any homes sold after Colorado House Bill 09-1091 went into effect in 2009. All remodeled or renovated existing homes and those with attached garages and fireplaces must have one monitor on each floor. Rental properties must also have a working detector in place at each change of tenant.
Maintenance and inspection of all fossil fuel appliances and equipment such as water heaters and boilers should be routine, Vandevoorde added, and in schools it is done by the state of Colorado.
The Montezuma Creek incident has focused attention on the issue for administrators at local and regional school systems.
Cortez Middle School principal Jamie Haukeness said that although Colorado does not require CO monitors, the middle school has them. “It’s a newer building and that’s why,” he said. “It’s also a digital control system.”
CO monitors are not installed in any other schools in the Re-1 district, he said.
Haukeness said the district’s emergency response plan is reviewed every year. “It is hooked into getting help from all sources in the community and covers a broad range of possible emergencies including bombs, fire, explosions, lockdowns and toxic vapors.”
Boilers and water heaters are checked daily, added Mike Chenard, maintenance director at Cortez Middle School, “and the kitchen staff comes in early every day so they are always aware of the appliances and any problem that may arise there.”
Julie Walleisa, lead architect on the new Montezuma-Cortez High School now in its initial design stages, explained that it is very rare that CO monitors are specified for schools. The Albuquerque architectural firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini specializes in school design and has completed more than 140 buildings in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and now in Colorado.
“It is not typical to specify the detection systems,” she said. “Instead, current best practices dictate that the systems using combustion and fuels be isolated from places where people are breathing the air. Rooms within the buildings are sealed with negative pressure and door closures are sealed to the outside.”
But shortly after his initial interview with the Free Press, Haukeness called back to say he and Chenard had talked over the Montezuma Creek incident and decided to go ahead and install monitors in all the district’s schools immediately, “because the impact on the Montezuma Creek students was so important.”
Scott Cooper, superintendent of Dolores School District Re-4 told the Free Press on Dec. 2 that because of the Montezuma Creek incident his administration decided to do what is best for the students, staff and faculty by installing the CO monitors in the buildings.
“If they aren’t in there yet, they will be very soon,” Cooper said, adding that there is room in the budget for small items “that we can make administrative decisions about as the need arises. This is certainly one of those times and they aren’t very expensive,” he said.
Red Mesa Unified School District 27, in Arizona, is also working with architects to design a new facility. In an email to the Free Press, Superintendent Tommie Yazzie wrote, “It was indeed a scare to hear of the carbon monoxide leak in our neighboring school. Our school offered to help.”
He said the leak has triggered a re-evaluation of existing facilities. “We assessed our situation and found that most of our heating units are roof-mounted with the exception of the Red Mesa Gym and Red Valley Cove High School. Monitors have been ordered for both buildings. In addition, our school district is in the process of reviewing all emergency-response plans with our staff.”
Some schools in the San Juan County School District such as Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary in Monument Valley and schools in Blanding and Monticello are closer to emergency-response teams and medical help. But others are isolated in communities as remote as Navajo Mountain and La Sal. Reassessment of all schools is happening now district-wide.
According to District Superintendent Doug Wright, CO monitors are now in place in Montezuma Creek Elementary School and Whitehorse High School. They are also on order for all the other schools in the district. The Central Consolidated School District, located in Shiprock, N.M., contacted twice by the Free Press, had not returned phone calls by press time.
Nearby, in Farmington, only one school building has monitoring equipment, according to Janel Ryan, superintendent of the Farmington Municipal School District. A portion of the Career and Technology Education Center was recently remodeled, she said, and a CO monitor was put in there. “As we receive the new safety standards, and CO monitors are included, they will be part of the project. We do have heat monitors in the buildings’ boiler/furnace rooms,” she said.
Symptoms of carbon-monoxide poisoning include a dull headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision, and loss of consciousness, according to the Mayo Clinic web site. If you suspect you’ve been exposed to carbon monoxide, get into fresh air immediately and seek emergency medical care. If possible, open windows and doors on the way out of the house.
Depending on the degree and length of exposure, carbon-monoxide poisoning can cause permanent brain damage, damage to your heart, possibly leading to life-threatening cardiac complications years after the poisoning, and death.
Vandevoorde said all homes should have CO monitors. “Maintenance and inspection should be routine. Because the gas is odorless and colorless, CO detectors are essential in rural environments such as our community. Sometimes people make the mistake of installing them in areas that will routinely set them off, such as anywhere around gas appliances, wood stoves, water heaters. They should be away from those areas and closer to bedrooms, anywhere that people sleep.”