Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Carbon Monoxide Tragedies Can Be Averted

November 10, 2011

No one is immune to the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) gas.

It can be present in any structure in which mechanical equipment produces exhaust while burning fuel.

Whether within a fraternity house or a public works building, the gas can be emitted by sources ranging from furnaces and water heaters to generators and other motorized devices.

Because it''s colorless and odorless, it often goes unnoticed until occupants become ill.

CO is harmful because, when breathed, it replaces the oxygen in the bloodstream that the human body requires to function properly.

As CO education spreads, more commercial and multi-family housing building contractors are installing CO detectors, which can alert occupants to evacuate before they sense any symptoms of poisoning.

This movement is further bolstered by the fact that, in some cases, CO detector installation is required by law.

But, it''s up to building owners and custodial service managers to comply — or risk the consequences if they choose to ignore legislation or good judgment.

In order to avoid the deadly gas, CO detection is a necessity, and the technology has significantly improved since the first generation of standalone devices.

System-connected, monitored CO detectors offer the highest level of protection because they can automatically alert authorities — a critical feature when occupants are asleep or already ill due to CO exposure.

There are also system-connected detectors that meet both fire and carbon monoxide code requirements with a single addressable device.

Truth In Action

Some CO detector successes have protected many people from illness and death.

Such was the case at Marion E. Zeh Elementary School in Northborough, Massachusetts, in October 2008.

Shortly before lunchtime on an otherwise average school day, a CO detector alarm sounded in the school''s cafeteria area.

School officials reacted instantly by calling the local fire department, which directed them to pull the fire alarms and evacuate the more than 300 students and staff from the single-story building.

Fire crews arrived on the scene and entered the school with gas meters.

As they walked toward the cafeteria area, the meters read 15 parts per million (PPM) of CO, then 30 PPM.

According to Northborough Fire Chief/Emergency Preparedness Coordinator David Durgin, by the time crews reached a boiler room near the cafeteria prep area, meters read 100 PPM.

"In all my 32 years in firefighting, I have never, ever seen 100 PPM other than in actual fire conditions," Durgin said.

"The kids would have been brought into this area for lunch. With CO being a silent, odorless killer, we had the potential for a mass casualty incident because of long-term exposure to CO."

A custodian who had been in the high CO concentration area was treated for a headache and released from a local hospital.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), headache is a common CO poisoning symptom, along with dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.

Severe CO poisoning leads to loss of consciousness and death, which can occur within minutes of exposure to extremely high levels.

Zeh Elementary''s CO leak was caused by the school''s gas-powered heating boiler.

Durgin said the boiler was not ventilating properly because a pivoting air intake valve had rusted shut.

As a result of the alarm, the boiler was turned off, the school was ventilated and students and staff came back in by lunchtime.

Additional Positive CO Outcomes

Along with the Zeh Elementary School incident, countless other potential CO tragedies have been averted throughout the U.S.

The following are events in which CO detectors made a difference in the outcome of gas leaks.

These situations also provide a broader view of how the dangers of CO can be present in a variety of structures.

  • In Watertown, Massachusetts, employees of the town''s public works department requested a CO detector be installed in the building where they work. Three weeks after installation, the detector''s alarm went off and employees evacuated. It was not a false alarm: CO was leaking from a burner in the basement and filtering throughout the structure. The problem was corrected and, after further monitoring, employees were permitted into the headquarters the next day.
  • Firefighters were called to a CO alarm at a four-story structure containing apartments and retail space in State College, Pennsylvania. Upon arrival, firefighters found CO present at dangerous levels on every floor. The structure was evacuated and a few people were treated for minor CO poisoning symptoms. Investigators checked the area and found that CO had built-up within the structure because a van had been left with its engine running for several hours at an adjacent loading dock. Occupants were allowed to return after each apartment was ventilated.
CO detection can greatly reduce injury and death from accidental exposures.

According to the CDC, there are roughly 500 accidental, non-fire CO poisoning deaths each year.

Many of these could likely be avoided with the installation of CO detection devices.

Along with smoke alarms and other fire detectors, a CO detector is one of the most important safety items in a building.

Without the aid of a detector, it''s virtually impossible to detect the presence of dangerous CO levels.

It''s certain that CO poisoning can kill quickly, but a recent study by the Journal of American Medical Association shows that CO poisoning subsequently increases the risk of heart problems that can lead to premature death.

The only safe way to know if dangerous CO levels are present is to install CO detectors on every level of a building and in sleeping areas.

Responding To The Call

Firefighters respond to many different kinds of calls for help.

Unsafe conditions involving CO may sometimes be difficult to evaluate by the responding fire department.

When CO detectors first became available, it was generally believed that the response protocol would be the same as that for smoke alarms.

However, as more municipalities enacted legislation requiring the installation of CO detectors, it became evident that smoke alarm protocols were not effective in CO alarm situations.

Response to CO alarms depends on information received in the initial dispatch message and/or on updates received from other responding agencies, such as a central station monitoring company.

Many victims are poisoned by CO while asleep, unaware of the elevated CO levels to which they''re being exposed.

"Because it is dangerous by nature, CO can go undetected," notes Guy Trayling, assistant marshal of the Lake Zurich Fire Department. "When people hear the alarm, people know enough to evacuate the building. The greatest risk factor is when people are asleep and unable to respond quickly."

It''s possible that building occupants won''t be experiencing symptoms when an alarm sounds.

That doesn''t mean dangerous CO levels aren''t present, though, as the alarm is supposed to activate before occupants feel sick, which provides proper reaction time.


Justin Mayer is the product marketing manager for the System Sensor security product lines, including its line of system-connected carbon monoxide detectors. Throughout his career, Mayer has developed, launched and managed several successful products and product lines. Along with his product work, he is an advocate for carbon monoxide safety, promoting legislation and disseminating information that can help save lives from this deadly gas.