Carbon Monoxide Deaths are a preventable tragedy  with 20 times more people being left with permanent brain damage than who die from it.

By Rebecca Martin

This week we learned that since the onset of the Covid crisis 2 1/2 years ago, one million Americans have lost their lives due to the Covid virus. A truly staggering number of deaths. It is part of human nature to weigh numbers in order to make sense out of the world around us. As a result, other causes of death may seem less significant in comparison. Take, for example, the argument that the common flu was used to diminish the dangers of Covid early on. Then why do we continue to advocate so strongly for issues like carbon monoxide safety?

            The answer to the question lies in one word – Preventability.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a life-threatening situation that, in most cases, is completely preventable. 

carbon monoxide deaths must stop

Carbon Monoxide Deaths are a preventable tragedy which almost always stems from neglect. Equally as bad Carbon monoxide poisoning  leaves 20 times more people with permanent brain damage than who die from it. Click here for more on brain damage from Carbon monoxide poisoning.

And though the losses from carbon monoxide poisoning may pale statistically in the face of the numbers of Covid deaths, what we must always keep in mind is that every death represents a real and unique individual whose life was important to them and to their families and all who knew them. A preventable death is a terrible tragedy that leaves behind a wealth of “what ifs”. What if there had been carbon monoxide detectors in place, what if proper maintenance and inspections had been done, what if the proper education had been in place, what if those responsible had taken their moral obligations for due diligence toward public safety to heart?

Year after year, month after month, week after week, the headlines continue to contain stories of incidents of carbon monoxide deaths and exposure; Evacuations, hospitalizations and in some cases,  fatalities. Research continues to reveal more long-term damage from carbon monoxide exposure, especially for our most vulnerable citizens; children and the elderly.  With some 50,000 visits for carbon monoxide exposure annually we are only scratching the surface of the true impact of carbon monoxide on the brain and other organs and the impact on the psychological health of those impacted by long-term deficits which often go untreated, sometimes with tragic results.

Examining Carbon Monoxide Deaths

Let’s take a closer look at preventing carbon monoxide deaths.

 “CO exposure is the leading cause of death due to poisoning in the United States. However, CO deaths are entirely preventable. Install CO alarms in your home and check them twice a year to make sure the batteries are working properly.”

This warning from the New York Department of Health prefaces a guide to carbon monoxide safety and an explanation of Amanda’s Law which was passed in 2009.

“This law was passed in 2009 and was named for a 16-year-old who died of CO poisoning from a leak in a defective boiler. Amanda’s Law requires that CO detectors be installed in all dwellings including single- and multiple-family homes, apartment buildings, hotels/motels, boarding houses, fraternity and sorority buildings, school dormitories, etc.”

While this law fails to address the sometimes harsh realities of situations like illegal apartments or an inadequate inspection force, it truly addresses the need for similar legislation in all parts of the country.

The issue of illegal apartments is a serious one when considering carbon monoxide deaths, disability and legislation. These cases often fall outside the scope of a community’s ability to enforce compliance. Because CO’s victims are usually low income; illegal apartment owners are rarely at a loss for new tenants.

Such is the case of a 46-year-old immigrant from Morocco recently in Stamford, CT. The man was found dead in his shower in his apartment during a welfare check and was believed to have succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning in the illegal basement apartment he rented in a building which housed 12-14 other tenants. Upon inspection, numerous code violations were discovered at the scene. Captain Richard Conklin noted that a heater, gas boiler and hot water heater had been installed in the unit without a permit and no source of ventilation. The hot water heater vented directly into the basement apartment bathroom in which the deceased man had been found. The building was immediately condemned and the other tenants were rehoused by the Red Cross. man’s name was withheld pending notification of his family in Morocco. One can only imagine the unanswered questions his family has about why such a senseless tragedy occurred in this great “land of opportunity”.

Carbon Monoxide Legislation Aimed at Prevention

In spite of these terrible cracks in enforcement, legislation is the key to ending carbon monoxide incidents. Only from this base can we move forward to address housing safety in the United States. Laws such as Amanda’s Law need to be a gold standard in every area of the country. But is it enough?

In 2007, Illinois enacted legislation which to address carbon monoxide deaths and disability requiring that all “…homeowners, landlords, and building owners are required to install carbon monoxide (CO) detectors within 15 feet of rooms used for sleeping. This law applies only to those occupancies that use fossil fuel to cook, heat, or produce hot water, or occupancies that are connected to an enclosed garage.” Yet earlier this month we have a story of two teens found unconscious and unresponsive as a first warning that they had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. The family dog was found dead under the bed in the boys’ bedroom. The teens were luckily found to be still breathing and were hospitalized for what was believed to be carbon monoxide poisoning. The adults in the home were not treated. The cause of the carbon monoxide incident was not released.

Public Education Key to Eliminating Carbon Monoxide Deaths

While legislation creates a foundation for safety enforcement, public education and awareness is still very much needed. I often stop to think, do I really need to keep saying you must have carbon monoxide detectors in place in every area in which people sleep? The question really is how can I keep emphasizing the importance of this simple and inexpensive act which can save families so much grief?

D.C. Carbon Monoxide Event

Earlier this month, carbon monoxide alarms enabled the evacuation of the Statesman apartment building in D.C. The source was believed to be a pressure washer being used in the building’s parking structure which leaked carbon monoxide into the building. Firefighters were able to evacuate all residents safely even with carbon monoxide levels reaching 250 ppm. However, a resident complained that when her detector went off a second time, the person working the front desk had advised her to open her windows and all would be fine. Luckily, the resident decided to call 911 instead and her actions led to an evacuation. Perhaps the consequences would not have been so fortunate had she not acted appropriately to the co detector’s alarm. Some people still have a disconnect with the seriousness, speed and deadliness of carbon monoxide.

All human lives matter. If the answer to saving a human life is something so simple as a carbon monoxide detector and spreading awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide, then it bears repetition.

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