Urban Populations at Risk for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning disproportionately impacts minorities and the poor because of the greed and nature of urban landlords.

By Rebecca Martin

Why are people in certain demographics more at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning?

We have to look at the inherent risk factors in the lower income portion of our population for a full understanding of why certain demographics are more vulnerable.

carbon monoxide poisoning

Minorities and other poor people are disproportionately at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning because they have higher rates of tenants and are renting older and poorer maintained housing stock. For more on carbon monoxide dangers in apartments, click here. 

Recently I posed the question to a Turkish friend of mine who currently resides in Turkey. What he said made me think. He said that among the poor people in his country, many were living in homes unsuitable for cold weather and were relying on stoves to heat. These stoves were being fueled with coal as it was cheaper and the homes were filling with fumes overnight and this caused fatalities. Desperation often led to ignoring the dangers which should be common sense. But the fact was that people are living in conditions people shouldn’t be living in.

So, how is it that in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, people are still faced an increased incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning through no fault other than financial disadvantage? And what can we do about areas of the country and portions of the population who live with heightened risks of carbon monoxide poisoning to address the issues? I wanted to reply to my friend that this did not happen in America, but it does. Certain members of our society are at an increased risk.

Black and Poor People Rent More

According to the 2020 US Census, 34.7% of all homes in America are rented.  Demographically, 58% of Black Americans rent, 53% of Hispanics rent, and 31% of white households are rented. The census found that renters tend to be younger, lower-income and less-white than homeowners. A 2018 Census data sheet showed Black households comprising 20.2% of all renters and 8.1% of all homeowners. https://usafacts.org/articles/who-is-renting-in-america-cares-act/

The percentage of renters in different areas of the United States is very evenly distributed with renters in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia sharing the same 62% with Rochester, New York and El Cajon, California. Geography is not the largest factor. However, we have previously discussed that the average age of buildings in the North as being higher than those in the South where the population is steadily growing, which has resulted in more new construction over the last decade. It would be safe to assume that rentals in the North would tend to be older construction on the average than rentals in the South.  And it would also be safe to assume that, because buildings in the North, on the average, have a larger square footage; that rentals in the North are more likely to be in larger complexes than in the South.

In the United States, rentals aimed at low income individuals and families are in short supply. Only 37 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 very low income renters. Renters are considered cost-burdened when they are spending 30% of their income on rent and extremely cost-burdened when spending 50% of their income on rent. Of the 44 million renter households, 10.8 million have extremely low incomes at or below the poverty level. According to the Gap Report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC):

“Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Latino households are more likely than white households to be extremely low-income renters. While 6% of white households are extremely low-income renters, 20% of Black households, 18% of American Indian or Alaska Native households, and 14% of Latino households are extremely low-income renters. This disparity is the result of higher homeownership rates and higher incomes among white households. Racial disparities also exist among renters alone. Thirty-seven percent of American Indian or Alaska Native renters, 34% of black renters, and 27% of Latino renters have extremely low incomes, compared to 21% of non-Latino white renters.” https://reports.nlihc.org/gap/about

Increased Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Low End Housing

It is clear that what happens in a rental household, on average, is more likely to impact those with lower incomes and those in the non-white population statistically. And when we factor in HUD projects we see disproportionate numbers of women and women with children, and in extreme poverty, those who are elderly or disabled. Most families receiving HUD assistance are elderly, disabled or families with young children. All of whom are more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Faulty appliances, boilers and ventilation are the most common causes of deadly levels of carbon monoxide exposure in older apartment complexes. This was the case in the Allen Benedict Court public housing complex in Columbia, South Carolina in 2019. High levels of carbon monoxide were found in the complex’s 26 buildings after two residents were found deceased on January 17, 2019. Four hundred residents were evacuated and unable to return due to conditions found at the scene.

“NBC News has found 11 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning in HUD housing since 2003, based on local news reports and interviews with housing authorities.” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/carbon-monoxide-killing-public-housing-residents-hud-doesn-t-require-n977896

Detectors for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Should be Mandated

While municipalities struggle with the funding to address such problems, again and again the question arises; wouldn’t demanding mandatory carbon monoxide detectors be a good first step? It is only recently that we are seeing progress made in making carbon monoxide detectors mandatory in all public housing while states and municipalities are beginning to address mandatory requirements for all single family dwellings.

“In New York City alone, the housing authority estimated last year that it needed $25 billion to fix faulty boilers, elevators, plumbing and other problems. But some solutions are far cheaper and simpler: A battery-operated carbon monoxide detector costs as little as $20 and could save lives, public health experts say.” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/carbon-monoxide-killing-public-housing-residents-hud-doesn-t-require-n977896

Though federal regulations are forthcoming, there is still a question of the landlord’s culpability in such tragedies. Provision of a safe environment for residents also relies on an adherence to competent inspections and enforcement of building codes. In the case of the Allen Benedict Court complex, inspections had been passed with flying colors in 2017 and the head of the Columbia Housing Authority at the time admitted he was unaware that carbon monoxide detectors were required. Although the complex lost points for superficial defects such as peeling paint and overgrown vegetation, more serious issues were not addressed during the inspections. Complaints from the residents, mostly African Americans, regarding faulty appliances, went unheeded. What turns this into an utter horror story for me is that not only was there carbon monoxide, in this instance natural gas was also found in the air and one can imagine what type of tragedy might have occurred if this situation had gone on any longer.

Detectors Should be in all Apartments

I would like to take a close look at the city of Chicago and its policies for rental properties. On Chicago’s official city website, the requirement for carbon monoxide detectors in rental properties is summarized in the following:

“If your apartment contains a furnace or space heater that burns a fossil fuel, a carbon monoxide detector must be installed. If the building is heated by a central heating plant, detectors are not required in the apartment. The owner of the building must install detectors where required and provide tenants with written information regarding testing and maintenance. The tenant is responsible for maintaining and testing the detector. If the detector is battery operated, the tenant is responsible for changing batteries.” https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/bldgs/supp_info/carbon_monoxide_information.html

This statement caused me to do a double take in view of the number of incidents I have reported on that involved a central heating plant that was either improperly installed, poorly maintained or improperly ventilated. As well as the interaction of the central heating system with air flow in the apartments which may have fans or venting systems not designed to work in conjunction with the existing power plant. There is story after story about venting obstructions or leaks which resulted in toxic levels of carbon monoxide entering living spaces which a $20 carbon monoxide detector might have alerted residents to and prevented a tragedy.

The City of Chicago does require a carbon monoxide detector in the room containing a central power unit and at least one within 40 feet of any residences used for sleeping. But this obviously doesn’t account for instances where a blocked or leaking venting system might be at fault and the danger may exist outside the parameter of the power unit as those units not directly serviced could be classified as exempt.

Inspections Don’t Replace Preventative Maintenance

I have said before the words “it was just inspected” often fall into the category of infamous last words before a tragedy strikes. Often inspectors called upon to do the job are professionals familiar with residential applications and unfamiliar with the dynamics of larger complexes, and maintenance reports are not always as reliable as one might hope. Keeping that in mind, I ask again, “Why are carbon monoxide detectors not the first step” when considering resident safety?

I have written about problems specific to older buildings where our current economic environment often tempts landlords to delay replacement or to only replace parts of existing heating plants. They are unlikely to make a change unless parts and repairs are no longer available for an older unit. This approach assumes that the entire system was properly installed in the first place and often the equipment in question is governed by older statutes in place at the time they were installed. It seems somewhat obvious that large systems require someone with some engineering experience to determine its efficacy and safety, but this is rarely the case when speaking of older systems. This is exacerbated by rental property owners who delegate the responsibility to their contractors with little understanding of the power plant itself.

You might be reading this and think that you are a reliable and smart tenant, but when we speak of an apartment complex you are also at the mercy of your fellow tenants. The person who leaves their vehicle running in the garage under your apartment or decides to use a generator indoors during a power outage might be your neighbor. When dealing with carbon monoxide safety we are dealing with an odorless invisible gas which is able to permeate an entire complex in total disregard for our own personal awareness of the dangers. I question the judgement of landlords who place that much faith in all their tenants to be that responsible in all things and under all conditions. In Chicago, carbon monoxide detectors are required in apartments which are connected in any way to a garage in the same way detectors would be required if the apartment had a fuel burning device on its premises such as a hot water heater.

In the event an apartment does have a fuel burning device, carbon monoxide detectors are required within 15 feet of any area in which a person sleeps. Although it is up to the landlord to explain and provide written instructions about the detectors, it is up to the tenant to replace batteries. It is worth noting that tampering with a carbon monoxide detector by a tenant is a Class A misdemeanor which becomes a felony on subsequent incidents.

Landlord Greed Leads to Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

We had spoken of the other dynamic at work in rental situations where some tenants are immigrants and may not be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning dangers and due to language barriers may not understand warnings or be knowledgeable of the dangers. Authorities say landlords need to explain that a property has or doesn’t have a carbon monoxide detector and that information may fall on deaf ears because of language barriers or even cultural differences. And as I mentioned above, rentals are in short supply. People desperate for housing are happy to have found what they were looking for and the details are probably not in the forefront of their considerations.

I think that one of the most disturbing results of the rental shortage is that landlords know that their residents are in a vulnerable position due to scarcity of rentals and disregard complaints as a result. This economic power removes landlords’ motivation to make capital improvements, especially to HVAC equipment that the tenant doesn’t understand. Residents are often unable to relocate due to tight budgets even if they do suspect that there may be dangers in their environment. Though there are many twists and turns in the law involving landlord liability, that has no impact on the fact that a simple carbon monoxide detector can prevent a carbon monoxide poisoning from escalating into a tragedy. It seems a small investment could divert future expenses regardless. It makes the entire argument against mandatory carbon monoxide detectors ludicrous.

In some instances, landlords have opted to supply tenants with space heaters in the event of a heating power plant failure or tenants have opted to heat by using space heaters. Fuel burning space heaters are meant to be used in well ventilated areas, not residences. Space heaters of all types have a secondary risk in that they could ignite something which in turn produces carbon monoxide. 43% of home heating-related fires are due to space heaters. 85% of heating-related deaths are due to space heaters.

Tenant Guidelines to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

As a tenant, there are certain guidelines. If you suspect that an appliance is malfunctioning, it should be reported immediately. If you feel you may have been exposed to carbon monoxide you should exit immediately and seek medical attention. Carbon monoxide can quickly incapacitate you and make it impossible to go for help.

Whether or not carbon monoxide detectors are required in your particular rental, it is always a good idea to have one in any area someone is sleeping. They are available in many price brackets. Many cities, counties and local fire departments have programs to disperse free detectors to those who are lower income. Contact your local city government or fire department to ask about availability and requirements to qualify.

Even if your particular area does not require your landlord to provide a carbon monoxide detector, you should ask anyway. A smart landlord might agree to the benefit a detector would be for him as well. When entering into a new rental agreement in an area that requires detectors, be sure that the detector is not past its life expectancy and is in working order. Detectors typically last for 5-7 years.

While we can’t fix the problems of American housing or the discrepancies in society overnight, we can give our full support to a simple device which should be in every area a human being sleeps regardless of whether it is an apartment, a luxury hotel or a mansion. Carbon monoxide detectors save lives and that is undebatable.



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