A carbon monoxide leak that sent nearly 50 Atlanta, Ga., elementary school students and teachers to hospitals two weeks ago drew national attention to the threat posed by an invisible and odorless gas that is released as a byproduct of combustion.
About 10,000 people are hospitalized each year from carbon monoxide poisoning and about 200 die. Anyone who does not rely solely on electricity for heat may have reason for concern.
Since 2009, carbon monoxide detectors are required for all new residential construction in Idaho, but the rule does not apply to all businesses. The detectors cost $20-$50.
Human error reportedly caused the Atlanta leak when a gas boiler valve was not closed, but mal-functioning or improperly ventilated gas, wood or propane systems can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning. This can be of particular concern in the Wood River Valley, where such systems are often put into use during electricity blackouts.
Following the Atlanta incident, carbon monoxide detectors were installed in all city public schools, even though they are not required by law.
Idaho law also does not require the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in schools, yet the Blaine County School District is considering installing them.
“The safety and security of our students is one of our biggest responsibilities,” School District spokeswoman Heather Crocker said. “It’s our understanding that carbon monoxide detectors are not required in schools, but in light of what happened in Atlanta, we will review our systems and evaluate the need.”
Crocker said the district has recently increased air circulation in its older buildings to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. She said most school buildings use “combustion mechanical systems” only as backup systems.
A back-up diesel generator system was in operation at Power Engineers in Hailey three weeks ago when carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms were reported among a skeleton crew of workers that had remained after hours during a scheduled power outage.
Hailey Assistant Fire Chief Mike Baledge said the Power Engineers building does not have carbon monoxide detectors, yet he said they are “highly recommended.”
Wood River Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Bart Lassman said 13 occupants of the building reported dizziness and headaches after working in a basement room that held computer servers. Lassman said the building’s occupants said their symptoms faded after they were evacuated from the building.
Lassman said it’s likely that diesel generators outside the building were producing the gas and that the room was not being ventilated properly.
He said that every year his department responds to about a dozen incidents in which carbon monoxide detector alarms go off.
“Of those 12 calls, there might be one or two where someone has had some early effect to carbon monoxide poisoning,” he said.
Lassman said that during the 2010 Christmas blackout, many valley residents used gas-powered generators for heat, but did not properly vent them. That led to carbon monoxide being released into houses.
“One person was overcome and had to be transported to the hospital,” he said. “Later that year, a husband and wife were transported after a leak in a gas furnace. None of these people had carbon monoxide detectors in their homes.”
Intermountain Gas provides emergency testing of homes for carbon monoxide leaks for free. The emergency telephone number is 877-777-7442.