17 Hospitalized at UWM Dorm Cambridge Commons

Bureaucratic stupidity and “rules don’t apply to us” thinking at the heart of the UWM Dorm Cambridge Commons carbon monoxide poisoning.

By Attorney Gordon Johnson and Rebecca Martin

In 2022, what landlord providing housing for 700 individuals doesn’t think they have a duty to install carbon monoxide detectors? Cambridge Commons Dorm at UWM in Milwaukee.

“We’re committed to cultivating an academic environment that promotes the health, safety, and personal wellbeing of our community.” From Rules & Expectations for residence halls https://www.housing.wisc.edu/residence-halls/life/expectations/

That commitment didn’t include protecting the residents from life threatening carbon monoxide poisoning.Cambridge Commons Carbon MonoxideCambridge Commons Carbon Monoxide

Track Record of Brain Injury Law Group in CO Cases

The Brain Injury Law Group, in conjunction with the Rozek Law Office has been retained to recover compensation for   survivors of this Cambridge Commons carbon monoxide poisoning. We currently represent more than 80 people in CO cases and have already recovered more than $50 million in past cases, with more than 20 people recovering more than $1 million for brain damage suffered in carbon monoxide poisoning incidents. 

Click here to read about the recoveries  of our past clients in carbon monoxide poisoning cases.

Wednesday, March 3rd, UW-Milwaukee administrators acknowledged that they did not have carbon monoxide detectors in Cambridge Commons or any other campus residence. They moved quickly to rectify the situation by installing carbon monoxide detectors. They met with the residents of Cambridge Commons and apologized for the lack of communication before and after the evacuation. They offered counseling by staff members. They offered alternative housing for those fearful of returning to Cambridge Commons. They initiated an estimated month of repairs to a defective boiler. https://www.wisn.com/article/could-have-died-uw-milwaukee-apologizes-for-carbon-monoxide-sickening/39316376#

TWO DAYS EARLIER at Cambridge Commons

On Monday night at around 10 pm, February 28th, 400 students had to be evacuated from the Cambridge Commons. Seventeen were hospitalized.  The cause was a carbon monoxide leak at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee residence hall. The source was a basement steam boiler.

The incident does not appear to have occurred without warning. One freshman stated that he had seen students fainting earlier in the week. One student described feeling light-headed earlier in the week. Symptoms of headaches, dizziness and other typical symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning were brought to the attention of the University housing staff. The fire department was contacted by the housing staff.

The fire department discovered high levels of carbon monoxide and the building was subsequently evacuated. A hazmat team was called in to help determine the source of the carbon monoxide. The fire department eventually determined that the basement boiler in the north end of the Cambridge Commons was the probable cause for the leak and it was shut down. Windows were opened to provide ventilation. Students were allowed to return to the building Tuesday at 5 am. Students were allowed to seek alternative housing if desired while those in the immediate vicinity of the boiler were moved during the duration of the boiler repairs. https://www.wisn.com/article/uw-milwaukee-dorm-evacuated-due-to-carbon-monoxide/39278325#

The vice chancellor of Student affairs for UWM said the boiler in question was 12 years old and had received routine inspection.

 “Officials initially said there were no injuries reported.” https://www.tmj4.com/news/local-news/uwm-dorm-evacuated-after-carbon-monoxide-alarm-goes-off

Those suffering the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning may not be limited to just the 17 students who were hospitalized for assessment and/or treatment on day one. All of the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning may not be determined immediately. It can take days, weeks or months to determine the full impact of carbon monoxide poisoning. In this case, the incident is not likely just a sudden onslaught of exposure but rather an occurrence which had been noted in the week preceding the decision to act and evacuate the building.

On March 1st, Tuesday, an additional five students complained of carbon monoxide symptoms. An ambulance was called and the students were examined on site. https://uwm.edu/news/incident-reports/cambridge-commons-carbon-monoxide-leak/

“Wednesday, UWM told Contact 6 that none of its residence halls had carbon monoxide detectors. Installation of detectors is now underway – but they are not required under the building code, the university said.” https://www.fox6now.com/news/uwm-cambridge-commons-carbon-monoxide

By Wednesday day UWM said that they had installed “strategically placed” carbon monoxide detectors throughout the building.  Students were still worried in spite of UWM’s post-incident actions.

“We don’t know, like, if they have working detectors – because if this happens again, you know, is it going to take people getting sick again, getting hospitalized?” https://www.fox6now.com/news/uwm-cambridge-commons-carbon-monoxide

UWM Claims of No Harm are Absurd

Another issue which arises is the certainty in which UWM states that no harm was done.

“We are very grateful that all 17 students taken to hospitals for assessment or treatment after last night’s carbon monoxide leak in Cambridge Commons were released earlier this morning.” https://uwm.edu/news/incident-reports/cambridge-commons-carbon-monoxide-leak/

 “Up to 40% of people who have suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning experience problems such as amnesia, headaches, memory loss, personality and behavioural changes, loss of bladder and muscle control, and impaired vision and coordination. These effects do not always present themselves immediately and can occur several weeks or more after exposure. Whilst the majority of people suffering from long-term effects of carbon monoxide poisoning recover with time, some people suffer permanent effects, particularly when it comes to organ and brain damage.” https://www.safefiredirect.co.uk/Page/24/carbon-monoxide-effects.aspx

No harm done? 40% of the 17 students means that as many as 7 of the known cases may have permanent brain damage. Permanent brain damage does not equal no harm. Some of this 17 got hyperbaric oxygen therapy. ER’s don’t refer people for hyperbaric oxygen therapy unless there is a serious concern for permanent brain damage. See also https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02699050802008075

Carbon Monoxide Brain Damage Gets Worse After Day One

What is so significant about carbon monoxide poisoning is that the brain and other organ damage can get worse over the first days and weeks after the poisoning, because the carbon monoxide does more than deprive the oxygen. It is also a toxin that directly attacks cells, particularly brain cells.

These students were sent home from the hospital with an advisory to follow up with a physician. This is particularly important in cases of carbon monoxide exposure and poisoning as the impact of such exposure can be long-lasting. Typically deficits occur days, weeks or months and can lead to some devastating and snowballing debilities.  Many of the deficits caused by exposure can be extremely detrimental in an environment dedicated to learning as they impact concentration, memory and the other building blocks of study. These type of setbacks can give rise to mental disruptions such as depression. And some of these spirals can lead down a deadly path. It is not a scenario which should be taken lightly based on release from medical care.

Young brains are still developing and continue to do so until one’s mid-twenties. It is sometimes impossible to determine the impact of damage until the brain reaches certain milestones in its development. This is the major reason for seeking medical follow up especially when a problem arises that did not exist pre-exposure to carbon monoxide. Changes in academic performance would be a factor to take note of. Changes in behavior, especially as observed by family and friends would be another.

Who is at Fault for Cambridge Commons Poisoning?

The UWM residence hall, as well as the Riverview Residence Hall were constructed on a site which had previously housed the Hometown Service Station and had various other commercial and industrial uses for the century before. A major clean-up had to be done in the area due to leaking underground storage tanks. 950 tons of contaminated soil were removed prior to construction. The UWM Real Estate Foundation decided to build the two new residence halls, the Cambridge Commons and the Riverview Residence Hall. Both buildings touted energy efficiency in an effort to create eco-friendly residences. The Cambridge Commons can house 700 students and boasts of several green energy amenities which have earned the building “a rare Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold designation after completion.” https://dnr.wi.gov/files/PDF/pubs/rr/RR904.pdf

This link https://dnr.wi.gov/files/PDF/pubs/rr/RR904.pdf also lists all those involved in the financial, liability and technical development of the Cambridge Commons. Evidently someone decided that carbon monoxide detectors weren’t on the list for student safety, at least not until this past Wednesday. UWM has posted numerous letters to media, students, parents and families at https://uwm.edu/news/incident-reports/cambridge-commons-carbon-monoxide-leak/ Among those topics covered is a promise to compensate each evacuated student with $100 for the inconvenience that might have been caused by the evacuation and the lack of foresight in installing carbon monoxide detectors. While they contend that carbon monoxide detectors are not required by state law, at least not specifically, it is an argument we also saw recently in the recent fatalities at a La Grange, KY hotel. This is an issue we addressed in our previous blog in terms of the principles of ethics in business which imply that the safety and well-being of those impacted by your business rises to a prominent spot in all things.

It is painfully obvious that the building codes need to be changed when it comes to lodging of any type. It is upsetting that most changes associated with carbon monoxide occur after the fact, when people have already been injured or killed. And often those changes are either the result of the advocacy of the families or in the form of litigation. It is absurd that such an inexpensive and readily available device such as a carbon monoxide detector is often the last thing on the list of things felt to be necessary to insure the safety of people in an establishment’s care. In a world where we struggle with safety strategies, the one constant is that carbon monoxide detectors save lives.







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