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Carbon monoxide: the silent killer

By Marcelle Dibrell

A silent killer that often strikes in winter, carbon monoxide is a real threat for indoor or poorly ventilated swimming pools that has sadly made a lot of headlines this year. A lawsuit filed early this month blames Best Western International, the owners of the hotel, a gas company, one of its employees, and a local heating technician for the deaths of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins. The Jenkins died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2013 while vacationing at a Boone, North Carolina Best Western hotel.

This accident was reported in Service Industry News Aug. 31, 2013 issue, after a gas leak from a swimming pool heater ultimately led to the deaths of three people. The current lawsuit alleges that their deaths were the result of a long series of human errors and equipment failures.  At the time, investigators determined that carbon monoxide came from the hotel’s indoor pool and exhaust system that was not correctly installed and was also in disrepair. It was a propane-fired Jandy heater that had been converted to natural gas, despite explicit warnings in the owners’ manual against doing this, and then relocated without obtaining an inspection or permit, both of which are required. Furthermore, police identified a number of places where the heaters ventilation system was leaking, and the ventilation fan was non-operational.

Unbelievably, as the result of allegedly slow and negligent remedial action, a third person, an 11-year-old boy Jeffrey Williams, died in the same hotel room less than two months later. His mother was also hospitalized and treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. The Williams family is expected to sue, and both families have made it their mission to get carbon monoxide sensors in every hotel room in every state.

The deaths and injuries are preventable, and happen all too often. 

For example, last August, at least two dozen people were poisoned at a Best Western near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Inspectors believe a furnace and pool heater were the source of carbon monoxide. In 2008, a 63-year-old man died after inhaling carbon monoxide from a water heater in an Allenton Pennsylvania Best Western. After that incident, carbon monoxide sensors were installed in all of the guest rooms at all the Best Westerns in Lehigh Valley.  Three years later, elevated levels of carbon monoxide set off alarms in the Allenton Hotel, so no one was injured. 

But after these recent three deaths in North Carolina, and the poisoning of the guests in Pennsylvania last August, Best Western International voted to require carbon monoxide detectors in all guest rooms. Despite that precaution, it seems that Best Western has not seen the last of pool heater carbon monoxide leaks. Four children were taken to the hospital this February after being exposed to potentially lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide at a Best Western indoor pool in Annawan, Illinois. The children had been swimming for only 10 minutes but first responders said the carbon monoxide levels could have been deadly within a half hour. The children had left the pool and were waiting in the hallway by the time responders arrived, complaining of dizziness, headaches and nausea. 

According to Fire Chief Johnson, the pool heater was to blame for leaking the gas, and the sealed pool area made it impossible for the gas to ventilate.He advised the hotel to have the pool heater checked and repaired before they re-open the pool. Though a carbon monoxide detector had been installed in the area, it didn’t have an audible alarm.

Best Western is not the only hotel with recent carbon monoxide leaks. A similar close call took place this January at a Holiday Inn Express swimming pool in Bismarck, North Dakota. Four children and two adults were taken to the hospital with complaints of dizziness. City officials have said that a faulty boiler was responsible. Hotel employees had already evacuated the area when responders arrived. Fire fighters tested the pool area with a gas meter and immediately received an alarm for high carbon monoxide. The crew identified the boiler as the culprit, shut it down, and ventilated the area until the carbon monoxide was cleared. 

Stories like these are fueling public interest in mandating carbon monoxide sensors within certain buildings.  According to the US Centers for Disease Control, over 400 Americans die from carbon monoxide poisoning every year, and another 20,000 are treated in emergency rooms, 4,000 of which are hospitalized. Many of these accidents could have been avoided with a carbon monoxide sensor. Requirements for carbon monoxide sensors vary by state, with widely differing mandates. For example, Alaska requires detectors for new and existing dwellings, Arkansas for dwellings built after 2012, and Florida for commercial buildings built after 2008. 

Texas legislation pertains only to family homes and child daycare facilities, law which apparently does not apply to schools. Many shocked Texans discovered this fact this month after 11 students were sickened from a carbon monoxide buildup at Lakewood Elementary School in Dallas. However, Texas is not the only state without sensors in their schools; only California, Connecticut, and Maryland require installation of the detectors in school buildings. Some states have no legislation at all and only a handful of states draft their laws to specifically address motels and hotels. The state of Nebraska is currently poised to join a growing list of states that require carbon monoxide alarms in houses and apartments. In response to a surge in calls to the Nebraska poison center from 107 in 2013 to 167 last year, lawmakers are moving forward with the bill.  Despite some opposition from Sen. Bill Kintner, who supports the goal of the bill, but believes the requirement represents government overreach, it is being prepared for a final reading as of March 3. The bill has had plenty of support. Don Johnson, the father of a 23 year old woman named Lauren who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her apartment, argued tearfully in support of the bill. Johnson is the president of the Colorado-based “Lauren Project” that advocates for carbon monoxide safety.

“Ponder this:   Every home and most public buildings are required to have smoke detectors. You can see smoke, you can smell smoke and you can feel smoke. You can’t see, smell or feel carbon monoxide and yet detectors are not required by law,” Johnson said.

Holding $30 in front of the legislative committee, he asked if that was too much to require of landlords and home owners to spend on a detector. Among others who have died of the gas were two friends of Senator Matt Williams. Williams said that that his friends turned on the heater of their indoor pool and never woke up.  The bill is proposed for any dwelling sold, rented, or for which a building permit is issued after Jan. 1, 2017. If passed, Nebraska will join 29 other states that require carbon monoxide detectors in certain residential buildings.

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