New York Boy’s Camp Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

TheZone Camp carbon monoxide poisoning in New York is another preventable tragedy as little thought is given to the path of exhaust gases.

By Rebecca Martin

One might expect that summer incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning would be directly related to seasonal activities and a lack of preparedness after a winter hiatus. We have discussed preparedness for summer activities such as boating, cycling, camping and even the summer horse show circuit. In view of this week’s lead news story about Oorah’s Boy Zone Camp carbon monoxide poisoning in New York,  it is now necessary to include summer camps when speaking of summer carbon monoxide dangers. But, as we shall see, not all camps are seasonal so we  have to look at the type of requirements we would associate with lodging of any type.

Camp Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

TheZone Camp carbon monoxide poisoning comes with a risk of permanent health problems, including permanent brain damage, to anyone who inhaled these fumes.  Carbon monoxide poisoning  can cause delayed effects which can worsen as much as 40 days after the poisoning in anyone who was symptomatic at the time of the poisoning.

We have a natural tendency to associate carbon monoxide dangers with colder weather. However summer and its associated activities are fertile grounds for harboring carbon monoxide dangers. On June 25, 2021, a boat was discovered circling a water intake offshore in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. On board the Coast Guard discovered three unresponsive passengers. Two adults were pronounced dead at the scene, while an 11-year-old passed away at MetroHealth. Boat generators pose a risk that can turn fatal in seconds. A marine carbon monoxide detector could have been a lifesaver in this instance.

Summer fatalities related to boating are the focus of Ohio State Senator Kirk Schuring who is working with Doug and Krissy Taylor to bring greater awareness to the dangers. The Taylors lost their 7-year-old son, Afton, due to a boating mishap involving carbon monoxide two years ago. Their hope is to bring legislation related to carbon monoxide dangers while boating, according to a WHBC article.

Boating is just one of the summer activities during which people should be alert and aware of the dangers. Hand in hand with awareness is the recurring theme of lives saved by the proper use of carbon monoxide detectors. Ultimately, tragedies can occur when this simple precaution is not taken.

Summer Camp Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Oorah is not what one typically envisions when one thinks of a summer camp. In 2003, Oorah was given access to a functioning summer camp which became immediately popular with Jewish girls from New York and New Jersey, according the In 2006, they purchased the Golden Acres Resort complete with resort amenities and in 2009 purchased the nearby Scotch Valley Resort. The Oorah’s sponsored camps operating under the TheZone might be classified as a non-profit resort dedicated to providing a Jewish environment for campers from across the US, Canada and Israel. TheZone camps provide year round activities for young Jewish people and their families.

TheZone Boys Campus is located in Stamford, NY while TheZone Girls Campus is located in Gilboa, NY, both in the upper Catskill region of New York.  Self-described as “featuring world-class resort facilities and top-notch staff”, they offer everything from martial arts to horseback riding to a music studio in conjunction with education. The campus featured in the news this week is TheZone Boys Campus located about 30 minutes from Albany, in Schoharie County.

TheZone participants at the time of the incident included staff and college age participants, ages 18-23. On Thursday morning, July 15, 2021, staff members reported feeling groggy or not well and six were reported to be in and out of consciousness. The Stamford fire department and Schoharie police along with other agencies responded to the incident and ordered an evacuation due to suspicion of carbon monoxide exposure. Readings as high as 330 parts per million were recorded at the scene, a potentially lethal level. 53 staff members and campers were transported to area hospitals for treatment. There were no fatalities.

According to Channel 13, WHAM

“Schoharie county officials who responded say the cause was due to a faulty hot water heater, however the facility manager says they believe an animal knocked over an exhaust pipe, and that it has since been repaired.”

However the US News reports:

“An initial investigation found the carbon monoxide originated from a propane hot water heater vented into the attic of a bunkhouse.”

It is interesting to note that in August of 2020, TheZone Girls Campus suffered a fire which destroyed the dining hall. The fire was reported to have started in the kitchen. According to CBS Channel 6 News

“The Zone had been issued a cease and desist order by Schoharie County Public Health on July 29th for allegedly not following COVID-19 regulations. The camp faces up to $60,000 in fines between its boys and girls campuses.”

The bunkhouse at the center of the carbon monoxide incident was to remain vacant until all investigations were complete and it was safe to return.

Hot Water Heaters A Year Round Risk of CO

Typically, hot water heaters are vented like gas furnaces, to the outside, using atmospheric pressure. What that means is the gases flow upward because hot exhaust air is lighter than cooler than room air. The presence of carbon monoxide from a hot water heater can  be due to a clogged vent or chimney or other processes which interfere with a clean burn of the fuel. Hot water heaters can also cause a carbon monoxide leak if improperly installed, poorly vented or neglected over a long period of time. The life expectancy for a gas hot water heater is 8 to 12 years. According to industry specialists, a hot water heater should be replaced if it is getting old, making strange noises, produces rusty water at the tap, is less efficient and producing less hot water and there is the presence of water puddles around the unit.

Pathway of Exhaust Gases Must be Maintained

Hot water heaters are vented using a chimney or flue. The flues may lead directly outdoors or lead into a venting system of a gas or propane furnace. In some jurisdictions hot water heaters must have a direct vent or power venting and cannot share venting with a furnace. Hot water heaters also need an air supply for combustion through either the air in the building or a vent pipe that pulls in air from outside.

Back drafting is a danger with any venting system and is due to poor vent design or improper installation or disturbances of the air in the building. This can be the result of fans in use in kitchens or bathrooms. In any case, the venting is supposed to deliver the exhaust gases to the exterior of the building.  A direct-vent system draws air from outside and delivers exhaust gases outdoors; a fairly efficient system if correctly installed. By no means is a hot water heater designed to be vented into an attic.

Safeguards against your hot water heater leaking carbon monoxide are annual flushing to remove sediment, annual inspection with anode rod replacement every few years, proper ventilation to the exterior of the building and ideally a carbon monoxide detector placed in the vicinity of the hot water heater. If a hot water heater has developed a leak, it is likely that it will keep running to keep up, not unlike a car that has been left running, thus creating the same potential for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Summer Camp Safety Must Include CO  Alarms

In 2009, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the Maine Department of Health Services, issued an advisory about the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning when people open camps for the summer.

“Health officials urge camp owners to make sure their propane-fueled stoves and/or refrigerators are operating properly and safely when turned on for the season. They should also make sure they have a working carbon monoxide detector close to where people sleep.”

In order to bring awareness to the issue of carbon monoxide poisonings in their state they noted:

“The best way to prevent CO poisoning is to make sure combustion devices are well-maintained, regularly serviced, and operated properly,” said State Health Officer Dr. Dora Anne Mills. “A carbon monoxide detector with back-up battery power should be placed near every sleeping area.”

According to an article in the Daily Star in Oneonta, New York; Steve Hood, the director of Delaware County Emergency Services recounted:

“An initial investigation found the carbon monoxide originated from a propane hot water heater vented into the attic of a bunkhouse, according to Hood. There were no carbon monoxide alarms in the building.”

In contrast, the Times Union reports that Assistant Fire Chief Mckay McMullen said he believed the camp had at least one carbon monoxide detector. Having a single detector is not sufficient. If the detector is in the utility room, but the exhaust is vented elsewhere inside, the detector will not sound. This is especially true in hotels where detectors should be in every room, not just in the place where the fire originates. Detectors must be where the people are, especially where they might sleep.

The consensus appears to be this incident affected one building and the problem has since been addressed. We expect to see updates regarding this story.

It is important to understand though that the health effects of carbon monoxide may escalate over time, even though the blood oxygen concentration returns to normal within an hour or two in the emergency room. Carbon monoxide is noted for causing delayed symptoms, thus the term delayed neurological sequelae. As many as 40% of those with abnormal Carboxyhemoglobin levels in the ER may have permanent brain damage. With the description of people fainting in the new reports, it is probable that some of those effected with continue to experience symptoms. If those symptoms persist, and especially if they get worse or reappear, go back to the hospital. Clearly described the course of the symptoms, even if the ER staff seem unconcerned.

This was not the first summer camp carbon monoxide poisoning

            On August 22, 2000, a 15-year-old male camp counselor died of carbon monoxide poisoning when a furnace malfunctioned while he slept. The incident occurred in a 50-year-old health services building that housed a 25-year-old gas fueled furnace and hot water heater. Neither appliance had a source of outside air for combustion purposes nor was there any source of outside air for air exchange. The furnace thermostat was also inoperable, failing to shut off when the desired temperature was reached. The camp staff manually used a toggle switch on the office wall to turn the furnace on and off. There were no carbon monoxide detectors in place.

Members of the staff slept in the health services building on occasion and that night the victim chose a room that shared a wall with the furnace room. When he failed to show up for breakfast the following morning, a supervisor found him unresponsive in bed. He was later pronounced dead at the scene.

As this young man was killed on the job, the findings went to OSHA and eventually to the FACE Project of the Wisconsin Division of Health, FACE investigates cases that are fatal machine-related, youth worker, or  road construction fatalities with a goal to making recommendations for future safety. Their recommendations were as follows: 1) Employers should ensure that gas fueled appliances are installed and maintained to prevent production and buildup of carbon monoxide. 2) Employers should ensure gas fueled appliances are inspected on a schedule recommended by manufacturers by knowledgeable technicians with authority to make changes. 3) Employers should install carbon monoxide detectors in buildings with gas fueled appliances. And, 4) Emergency responders should be trained in the hazards of an asphyxiating environment and be equipped to protect themselves during rescue and recovery efforts.

This seems like such a straightforward guideline for all employers. We can expect to see similar investigations into the Oorah camp carbon monoxide poisoning as OSHA will be involved due to the fact that most of the victims in that incident were staff members.  We have to be grateful that the incident occurred in the morning and not while people were asleep. It could have been a very tragic event. We have to hope that recommendations which will undoubtedly follow will help ensure the health and safety of future summer camp staffers and participants.

No matter what the situation, or activity, or location; one fact remains: Carbon monoxide detectors save lives and it is incomprehensible that these incidents continue after years of public awareness as to the significance of their role in public safety. Wherever there is fuel, there is combustion, and it follows that the risk of carbon monoxide is possible.





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