School Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Strikes Again

School Carbon Monoxide Poisoning season is upon us, including the evacuation of the Warring Elementary School in Poughkeepsie for high levels of CO.

By Rebecca Martin

The arrival of cold weather inevitably brings us stories of carbon monoxide exposure. Furnaces and boilers are turned on for the first time months. Faulty and inadequate inspection and maintenance of heating systems rise from the status of negligence to potentially deadly. Some of these incidents affect those nearest and dearest to us personal as well as school carbon monoxide poisonings.

school carbon monoxide

School carbon monoxide poisonings are mounting in 2021, including several in New York. Aging structures and mechanical equipment (such as the boiler shown here) and long neglected  maintenance are taking their toll on our children. This week it was the Charles B. Warring Elementary School in Poughkeepsie.

I was reminded of the potential for tragedy this week after reading the account of some beloved friends who have been living a life adventure the past couple of years, RVing across the country. Following their journey via their blog, I would never have thought a stop-over at a relative’s home would be the incident that put them at risk. But due to a carbon monoxide detector, the tragedy was averted even though the responding fire department detected high levels of carbon monoxide in their bedroom. It brings home the importance of getting the word out about carbon monoxide dangers to all those in our personal circles. Carbon monoxide poisoning is not something that happens to other people, it can strike anywhere at any time to anyone.

School Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in New York

Unfortunately, fall is a bad time of year for carbon monoxide in schools. We know this because the Brain Injury Law Group has been involved in multiple school poisonings, one of the worst which happened this very weekend in Chicago in 2015. See Carbon Monoxide in Schools – A Community Disaster

A school carbon monoxide poisoning was center stage this week in Poughkeepsie, NY at the Charles B. Warring Elementary School. Fire fighters responded to a fire alarm and discovered high levels of carbon monoxide at the school. The school was evacuated and the heating system shut down. One staff member was transported to a local hospital for treatment. The carbon monoxide was traced back to a malfunction in the building’s boiler according to the Mid-Hudson News. https://midhudsonnews.com/2021/10/25/high-levels-of-carbon-monoxide-cause-school-evacuation-and-closure/

Children were sent home for the day with the younger students being very distressed by the event. According to the Poughkeepsie Journal:

“Poughkeepsie City School District building conditions have played a part in lawsuits and complaints over the past few years, records show.” https://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/story/news/education/2018/12/17/poughkeepsie-school-conditions-spark-complaints-lawsuits/2298247002/

No one in a similar situation should just be sent home, especially not children. Anyone exposed to such amounts of carbon monoxide should be taken to the hospital, given oxygen and have their blood tested for carboxyhemoglin.

HVAC Maintenance Core to Children’s Health

Some air quality complaints have been centered around basement classrooms where the air quality and ventilation have been in question. Although carbon monoxide testing may been negative, hidden mold and poor indoor air quality may be compromising the health of staff and students.

In our prior blog, https://carbonmonoxide.com/2021/10/preparing-for-winter-heating-season.html we discussed how improper maintenance of furnaces can result in mold developing in the duct work as well as creating a potential for carbon monoxide poisoning. The Warring Elementary School had been involved in previous litigation regarding air quality related to mold before this week’s boiler incident. Although this previous lawsuit was unsuccessful in proving that mold was directly responsible for a workers compensation claim, lawyers contend that the decision was premature as tests received after the medical testimony from John Hopkins confirmed the presence of Aspergillus mold.

“Indoors, aspergillus is often found in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, though it can be found in other places, too.” https://www.mold-answers.com/aspergillus-mold.html

We will be interested to see if, in light of these continuing concerns, the Warring Elementary School receives a closer look by the Department of Labor’s Public Employee Safety & Health bureau (PESH). Firefighters had immediately opened all windows upon responding to the carbon monoxide incident on Monday but there is no detailed information on how the basement classrooms were ventilated in view of complaints contending that air quality was a particular problem.

Fresh Air Important to Avoid School Carbon Monoxide Incidents

It is of interest that CO2 monitoring is a very helpful way to determine the presence of conditions which encourage mold growth in venting systems. Although not as dangerously and immediately toxic as carbon monoxide, studies by the Harvard School of Public Health found that high concentrations of CO2 can affect decision-making and cognition. Air quality is an entirely different topic we will explore at a later date.

As parents, we send our children into the safekeeping of the school system daily anticipating their safe return. Even in cases where fire or carbon monoxide detectors avert tragedy we still must demand the utmost diligence be used with potential environmental sources of contaminants and most specifically with heating systems and their proper maintenance. By Tuesday, Superintendent Eric Rosser stated:

 “the odor was ruled to be coming from a boiler, which has since been fixed and the building has been deemed safe for reentry.” https://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/story/news/education/2021/10/25/poughkeepsies-warring-elementary-reopens-after-boiler-issue/8542298002/

Multiple School Carbon Monoxide Incidents in Poughkeepsie

In May, 2017, another Poughkeepsie school carbon monoxide poisoning occurred. The speed of the evacuation was questioned as it took more than 40 minutes for the middle school students to be evacuated after the arrival of emergency services. The City of Poughkeepsie Fire Chief, Mark Johnson, said that the fire department had encountered a “push-back” from the district Superintendent Williams on the basis that students were taking state exams.[1]

2021 Getting to be a Bad Year for CO

In September of this year, another school carbon monoxide event occurred in Ithaca, NY. The Vestal Hills Elementary School there was evacuated due to elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the building. Carbon monoxide was detected early in the morning before students had arrived and students were advised to remain at home or were redirected to a nearby auditorium. The problem was traced back to a regulator on a secondary boiler which was consequently shut down by the New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG), according to WSKG, a PBS, NPR subsidiary.

In October, a Reading, Pennsylvania school was evacuated when readings of carbon monoxide at 800 parts per million were discovered by fire crews responding to the scene. Many reported headaches at the scene but were not sent for further treatment after evaluation by ambulance crews. The source of the fumes were traced to a contractor who had been hired to do phased improvements. The contractor had been using a gas-powered power washer close to the air intake of the building. The contractor was instructed on the safety issues of using gasoline-powered equipment around an occupied building according to the Reading Eagle. https://www.readingeagle.com/2021/10/06/kids-teachers-reading-school-carbon-monoxide/

Virginia School Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

In February of 2021, Poe Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia was evacuated when high levels of carbon monoxide were discovered. The carbon monoxide was traced to a leak in the HVAC unit. There were no reported injuries according to WUSA9.

However, according to CO Safe Schools, LLC in Virginia Beach, VA, they found:

“…over 100 documented incidences of Carbon Monoxide exposure in Virginia daycares and schools since 2015 that required medical intervention or evacuation. In over 20% of these cases, the issues were related to corroded pipes or construction, cleaning and landscaping equipment that use gas in their tank for power – NOT appliances like a boiler, furnace or gas oven – further indicating Carbon Monoxide detection should move beyond the “install detection in cases of gas appliance only” narrative.”

This group, founded by Nikki James Zellner, began as a response to a 2020 evacuation in which over 80 children under the age of six were impacted, including her two sons. Many of the children were hospitalized and at least one was unconscious at the scene. Her advocacy began with a move to make carbon monoxide detection mandatory in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  She soon discovered it is not enough to change legislation.

“The stakeholders for this initiative are legislators, school systems, parents, educators, faculties and education/health organizations. Understanding creates advocacy. Advocacy creates policy and change.” https://www.carbonmonoxideinschools.org/the-why

She further points out that carbon monoxide incidents in school are underreported.

“CO exposure is severely underreported due to lack of hardwired connection to emergency authorities, not always covered by the press, as well as its general ability to mimic other illnesses.”

Included on the CO Safe Schools website is a downloadable PDF of all incidents of documented CO poisoning in schools reported by the press going back to 2005 that they were able to find online alone. This downloadable PDF is available at https://266f8add-8f47-472f-9e1f-ec66a4a73b5d.filesusr.com/ugd/418170_f6a40ebb01b84182aa05a60fba15e918.pdf

It is an extensive and sobering look at carbon monoxide safety in our schools. From faulty HVAC systems to improperly vented kitchen equipment or gas-powered tools improperly used to delivery trucks left running near air intakes; almost every incidence is described as one we have preached on over and over in our quest for carbon monoxide safety. And it all focuses on lack of precautionary measures in consideration of venting issues. Even if we are not looking at an interior source of carbon monoxide contamination, the problem is often a disregard to the potential dangers of air intake or outtake.

[1] This claim was later denied according to the Poughkeepsie Journal who was able to obtain email records from the Fire Department but was denied access by the District to correspondence related to the incident.

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