A Perfect Winter Storm Magnifies Lack of Carbon Monoxide Safety

Texas winter storm was perfect storm to illustrate lack of concern about carbon monoxide safety. Predictable disaster meets no CO detector law.

By Rebecca Martin

There are currently three states which do not require carbon monoxide detectors; Missouri, Hawaii and Texas. In Texas, this oversight contributed to 11 deaths and hundreds of injuries. When we look back on the perfect storm of events from the week of February 15th in 2021 we can well ask “What if? What if Texas had shown any concern at all, for carbon monoxide safety?” We did, right here: https://carbonmonoxide.com/2021/02/winter-storm-equals-carbon-monoxide-warning.html

What if the 11 deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning and the hundreds of cases which presented at emergency rooms with carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms, some which resulted in long term deficiencies, could have been prevented? In the midst of deaths due to hypothermia during a record breaking ice storm and freezing temperatures, the deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning stand out as particularly senseless and have raised a public demand into why Texas does not require carbon monoxide detectors.

Politics at Heart of Ignoring Carbon Monoxide Safety

carbon monoxide safety is more than generators

Carbon monoxide safety in a storm starts with generator warnings but must come with mandates for carbon monoxide detectors. But generator safety is not enough. If a storm this bad, people can get poisoned in unimaginable ways. Only the carbon monoxide detectors will warn of all these risks. 

We have previously looked at the problems within the state of Texas regarding the power grid itself. In order to keep property taxes low, improvements to the power grid were not made which politicians were most likely well aware of when making campaign promises about keeping taxes low. Those at the top were well aware that improvements were needed. The storm which set off the events in February was not a surprise either. It was forecast by meteorologists ahead of time with warnings as to the severity and possible repercussions. This is a fact in that the states hit by the record breaking weather had already hit other states, the one I live in included. And we already were aware that days without power were possible and predicted.

Texas also has a deregulated power grid which was not connected to the rest of the country and this along with failure to require equipment upgrades, left Texas in the vulnerable position of not being able to cope with the approaching storm. Even so, Texas politicians left the responsibility of preparing for the storm in the hands of the power companies. And those power companies opted out of any costly upgrades.

Though Texas Republicans tried to lay the blame on renewable energy sources such as frozen wind turbines or solar panels, problems existed in the nuclear, natural gas and coal powered sources as well. According to an article in The Texas Tribune on February 17, 2021:

“Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the energy grid operator for most of the state, said that the state’s power system was simply no match for the deep freeze.” https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/16/texas-power-outage-ercot/

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas runs the state’s power grid independently to avoid dealing with federal regulations. In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act which put the Federal Power Commission in charge of interstate electricity sales. The Electric Reliability Council was formed in 1970 in response to a major blackout in 1965 in the Northeast. Their job was to run the power grid in accordance with national standards while maintaining independence from federal oversight in a self-contained system.

A similar storm in 2011 had also tripped up the power grid leading to power outages across the state. While ERCOT acknowledges that there is no requirement for them to prepare for storms of this type, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation is developing mandatory standards for winterizing energy infrastructure. Whether Texas will follow those recommendations is to be seen.

Personal Responsibility Should Mandate Carbon Monoxide Safety

The power outage itself is one aspect of what occurred. But let’s turn to some of the unique aspects of Texas in dealing with carbon monoxide safety. Texas lawmakers promote personal responsibility over legislating state regulations. As a result, Texas is one of the last states to mandate the use of carbon monoxide detectors. And this has impacted minority neighborhoods in a big way.

Minority neighborhoods were hit particularly hard by the power outages, accounting for 72% of carbon monoxide poisonings.  Some hospitals reported that as many as 82% of patients seen for carbon monoxide poisoning were from low income neighborhoods. Already reeling with Covid numbers higher than other neighborhoods, they were the first to lose power. Residents of Hispanic or black communities were four times more likely to lose power during the crisis. Homes historically are less well insulated and the occupants less able financially to relocate to a safer location. They are less likely to own a winter weather worthy vehicle or have family members to go to. They are less likely to be reimbursed for lost wages as well. On top of this Texas also adjusts its energy prices according to supply and demand due to deregulation which leads to higher utility bills during times of unusually cold temperatures.

More Education needed on Carbon Monoxide Safety

But there is another factor in the historically marginalized neighborhoods in Texas, the possibility that some residents might not understand warnings of what not to do during a winter storm. And many are unaware of the dangers that can exist with fuel burning devices and their connection to carbon monoxide poisonings.

Shalemu Bekele was one of those impacted by all of these factors. He and his wife had moved to Houston from Ethiopia and until February of 2021 he had never heard of carbon monoxide until he woke up in a hyperbaric chamber in a hospital and learned of the death of his wife and daughter.

Although he lived in an area where it was required that as new homeowners they be informed that there were no carbon monoxide detectors in the home he and his wife had purchased in 2017, Bekele did not recall that information. Although Texas leaves regulation of carbon monoxide detectors in the hands of local governments, there is no statewide agency which oversees those regulations. Because of this, even those communities with stricter regulations such as Austin, it is not uncommon for regulations to be ignored. Austin had voted to require carbon monoxide detectors in new and existing homes with fuel burning appliances in 2017, prompted by the death of two Austin residents years earlier. Fort Worth and Dallas require carbon monoxide detectors in new single family homes, in existing multifamily homes but not in all single family homes.  Houston requires them in new or remodeled single family homes. Without a state stand on regulations regarding the use of carbon monoxide detectors, at least in building codes, it is difficult to determine the level of oversight in compliance. And it is worse in more rural areas.

Why CO Detectors without Fuel Burning Appliances?

But Franklin Pena’s home did not have any fuel burning appliances. When in desperation to protect his children from the cold, he brought a grill indoors. This led to the poisoning of his entire family. It took thirty minutes for the very ill Mr. Pena to apprise the 911 operator of the emergency.  Later extremely high levels were recorded in their apartment.

So many calls came in for help and so many people presented at the emergency rooms that room in hyperbaric chambers was unavailable and oxygen tanks had to be brought in and a triage set up to get the most urgent into the hyperbaric chambers.

When we look at the timeline, it is unbelievable that warnings regarding carbon monoxide poisoning did not go out until the storm had hit. Meteorologists had warned of the impending weather around February 5th, many days before. But it wasn’t until the staff at Prater’s ER were in the midst of treating patients for carbon monoxide poisoning that a plea was sent out at their request via the news media to warn people of the dangers. Information that was highly unlikely to reach its most vulnerable audience during the power outage. It was only after the fact that warnings about bringing grills indoors or leaving cars running were dispersed to the public. And then there was the lack of warning aimed at the non-English speaking community. According to a February 19th article in The Texas Tribune:

“Nothing was translated or targeted to our non-English speaking communities. That’s an easy fix and I feel that more needs to be done there,” said Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua, whose district includes Hispanic and Black neighborhoods in the southeast part of the city.

Language Barriers Big Issue in Texas

 

Need bi-lingual carbon monoxide safety warning labels

If the goal is carbon monoxide safety, warning labels can’t just be in English.

Carbon monoxide safety campaigns must take into account language barriers. Spanish and Vietnamese are two of the top five languages spoken in Houston. And that is not the only problem, emergency warnings are often targeted at that part of the population who are highly fluent and are often written at a college level and viewers are expected to understand what satellite images are portraying. And in some neighborhoods, a distrust of authorities in general may exist which means that cultural differences need to be taken into account when delivering vital information regarding natural disasters.

Another problem with language barriers is that it may impair a victim’s ability to call for help during an emergency, even when they have managed to locate the proper help to call. They may have difficulty explaining their situation or understanding what steps to take while waiting for help. A language barrier may also hinder attempt

s to communicate with first responders. And these things are amplified if one is in a compromised state. We see this in Pena’s half hour long attempt to make the 911 operator understand why was occurring at his home.

Community Mapping for Carbon Monoxide Safety

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has recommended community mapping in order to understand and provide the best emergency response services for all neighborhoods. Houston has disaster preparedness classes in Spanish and Vietnamese as a means to educate residents, but generally residents helping residents is the best solution in terms of a disaster and disaster readiness teams in the community would be a great help in any disaster. According to a 2007 American Community Survey, there are 24 million Americans who speak English “less than very well” and this number does not include undocumented immigrants.

The Intergovernmental Advisory Committee to the Federal Communications Commission identified many of these problems and possible solutions in the Matter of Multilingual Emergency Alerting https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-360696A3.pdf They repeat that understanding the communities one is working with, and having a trusted presence in those communities  is an important part of community preparedness along with the more technical aspects of providing translation of early warning systems.

Another aspect is the use of multilingual warnings on things like grills, or other fuel burning devices as well as multilingual directions on devices such as carbon monoxide detectors. In many cases recent regulations have provided for these types of changes.

Even now Texas is rethinking many of its former views relative to carbon monoxide safety.  We hope a new look is being taken at carbon monoxide detector requirements while others have resigned over failures in the infrastructure. It is a very sad statement that these changes always occur after the fact when lives have already been lost or disrupted. Litigation often has the same effect by forcing a look at the financial bottom line in order to bring about the change needed to protect the public. Texas felt the unregulated power grid would operate in the public’s best interest without political persuasion and people died. The same frame of mind which says that people will just be personally responsible for installing carbon monoxide detectors without any type of mandated regulations or consequences has the same impact on public safety.  People die.

In the stages leading up to and during a natural disaster, preparedness is ultimately important. Information should be readily accessible and understandable to all communities. This includes the proper education, regulation and installation of carbon monoxide detectors which are important in ALL natural disaster scenarios.  We have seen that we have to assume that there are portions of the population that are unaware of the dangers of carbon monoxide and unaware of the dangers presented by fuel burning devices.

And more, we have learned that “personal responsibility” is not the most effective way to ensure the safety of the public, especially carbon monoxide safety. Approximately 430 die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning and over 50,000 are impacted , often in circumstances where taking personal responsibility for safety was not observed. Whether it be from the uneducated use of fuel burning devices, or through the fault of others who failed to maintain, repair or replace devices which ultimately resulted in the death or injury of individuals.  What we do know, is that properly installed carbon monoxide detectors save lives. The only way to guarantee their usage is through legislation. And the most effective means of doing so are on the state or ideally, the federal level. Leaving these decisions to local governments allows for too many discrepancies and too much intervention from those seeing only the financial numbers and not the savings in terms of lives.

Every natural disaster comes with its own list of casualties. Those who perished not from the disaster itself but the deadly carbon monoxide that inevitably follows once the power goes out.  The connection is not obscure by any means and it is time we, as a country, decided that those losses are not acceptable losses.  If we demand the strict regulation of carbon monoxide detector installation into all environments where individuals may be sleeping, we will save lives. And if we define disaster preparedness as providing information to all facets of our diverse population with proper education about the dangers of carbon monoxide we are sure to see decline in injuries and deaths.

 

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