All Schools Must Have Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Remarkably, not all schools are required to have carbon monoxide detectors, as mandates only follow tragedies.

By Rebecca Martin

The driving force behind proactive and preventative measures to guarantee carbon monoxide safety is not the causal relationship between the presence of fuel burning devices and the potential for carbon monoxide exposure. Measures to protect the public from the possibility of death or injury due to carbon monoxide poisoning often comes on the heels of a publicized incident which resulted in injury or death or had the potential to.

Crandon Elementary School had No Carbon Monoxide Detectors

On Thursday, March 14, 2024, Crandon Elementary School in Crandon, Wisconsin, two students and a staff member complained of symptoms related to possible elevated levels of carbon monoxide. The decision to call in the Forest County Sheriff’s Office was made when it was determined that the affected students had not been in contact with each other, were in different parts of the building and no other common denominator could be found. The school was evacuated immediately when first responders arrived.

During the initial investigation, an additional student, four staff members, and two EMS workers began experiencing the same symptoms as the other occupants who had fallen ill. Hazmat teams found a mechanical issue with the furnace and elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the school. 39 people received medical attention with two having elevated levels of carbon monoxide upon testing.  As a result, the school was closed, and all school events cancelled until the building could be ventilated and the furnace malfunction addressed.

The School District of Crandon extended its closure through Spring Break with plans to return April 2.

“The school district said Wisconsin Mechanical based out of central Wisconsin will be assisting with investigation on Monday.

The process will include inspection, cleaning, and maintenance of all HVAC components.”

Officials emphasized that carbon monoxide poisoning should be suspected when complaints of “shortness of breath, feeling light-headed and high pulse rates” are experienced by multiple persons.

Outrage Fuels Mandates

Why were there no carbon monoxide detectors at Crandon Elementary?

Wisconsin State Law does not currently require carbon monoxide detectors in schools. Crandon Elementary is not the only school in Wisconsin to have experienced a dangerous carbon monoxide incident. In 2022, 17 students at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee were hospitalized due to a faulty boiler. Information on the presence of carbon monoxide detectors or plans to install carbon monoxide detectors was not disclosed by the Crandon School District.

Wisconsin is not alone in its lack of laws protecting students and school staff from possible malfunctions which could result in carbon monoxide exposure. States that do require carbon monoxide detectors in schools may only require them in new construction. The reason for this is that regulations specific to carbon monoxide detectors are usually covered by state building codes and are not part of the enforcement capability of state education departments.

“More states are updating their building codes to require detectors in new and existing school buildings and now at least 10 do so, according to the Environmental Law Institute. In 2018, only five states had those requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.”

It is believed that large buildings, like schools, are less likely to be impacted by furnace issues than individual residences. Larger square footage and remote furnaces with their own exhaust systems give a false sense of security. But the dangers of carbon monoxide exist anywhere there are fuel-burning devices, and those dangers exist whether there is a boiler in every classroom or a boiler which can contaminate any area it services.

Illinois Required School Carbon Monoxide Detectors in 2016

The premise of this blog was proven by the example of Illinois. In September of 2014, more than 150 middle schoolers were poisoned at the North Mac Middle School in Girard, IL.

For the sounds of a school carbon monoxide poisoning, click on the below files. The logistics of treating 100 plus children poisoned in the same incident is beyond the capacity of most communities.

Schools and carbon monoxide detectors

In 2014, more than 150 middle schoolers were poisoned in Girard, IL. Those parents and teachers changed Illinois Law getting the Illinois legislature to mandate carbon monoxide detectors in schools. .

The Brain Injury Law Group continues to represent 23 survivors of this poisoning in litigation against the school district and a local HVAC contractor. Perhaps it was the proximity to the Illinois State Capital in Springfield (about 30 miles) that made the difference, but parents and teachers of that one school, convinced the Illinois legislature to mandate carbon monoxide alarms in schools within a year. The effective date for that mandate was the beginning of 2016, almost unheard of in terms of how fast it happened.

Yet, that speedy implementation of regulations wasn’t fast enough for another 100 plus grade schoolers who were poisoned at the Prussing Elementary School in Chicago in October of 2015. The Brain Injury Law Group continues to represent survivors of that incident against the Chicago Public Schools. But that time, the publicity and anger at a repeat tragedy got the school district to not wait for the 2016 effective date. Within weeks, the Chicago Public Schools had put alarms in all of its schools and when another carbon monoxide event occurred in December of 2015, the children were safely evacuated. Click here for more on the difference litigation and outrage can make for future safety.

What is Wisconsin’s Response to School Safety?

State Representative David Steffen announced he would be introducing a bill to require carbon monoxide detectors in Wisconsin schools. Wisconsin schools currently have indoor environmental quality plans, and installing carbon monoxide detectors throughout school buildings could be incorporated as a priority safety measure. “This traumatic event could have been avoided with a simple detector,” said Rep. Steffen. “We’ve put millions of dollars into school safety programs over the years. This is an inexpensive, but very effective, way to protect our kids while they’re at school.”

State Representatives David Steffen, Jeff Mursau, and Rob Swearingen are proposing a process whereby schools could seek reimbursement for costs relating to purchasing and installing carbon monoxide detectors. Representative Swearingen stated “Student and staff safety should be a top priority, and the fact that carbon monoxide detectors aren’t already mandatory in our schools is frankly shocking,”

Wisconsin: An Isolated Incident?

It is not just northern schools that are impacted by CO poisonings.

In 2012, 50 people, including 40 children, were sickened at Finch Elementary School in Atlanta by potentially lethal carbon monoxide fumes. The carbon monoxide was traced to the school’s heating system. The school building had passed an inspection prior to the incident.

In 2013 at least 10 people, including five adults and five children were medically treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at Oklahoma City Elementary School caused by an HVAC unit. 6 were hospitalized as a result.

In 2014, students were evacuated from the Springfield Public School in Springfield, Minnesota for possible carbon monoxide poisoning. 30 students were taken to the hospital for evaluation during the incident.

In 2017, Urbana High School students were impacted by a malfunctioning heating system. 40 students were evaluated for carbon monoxide poisoning.

These earlier incidents clearly demonstrated the potential danger of carbon monoxide in a school setting. And yet these types of incidents continue in 2024 in schools like Cedar City Middle School in Utah, or the Catawba College residence hall at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina.

Precedence for child safety

It recalls a safety hazard brought to light in a 1997 article regarding the dragging deaths of 8 students between 1991-1997. The deaths occurred due to a design flaw in the stair railing design of school buses. 160,000 school buses were recalled as a result. The modification required, that would have prevented those 8 deaths, was simple and inexpensive. Those 8 deaths were considered tragic and preventable and taken very seriously.

This is quite comparable to the situation caused by a lack of laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in schools. Carbon monoxide detectors are a simple, inexpensive preventative measure which, given the number of incidents over the years, should be part of the safety measures we expect for our most precious and vulnerable population. It is shocking that any schools are operating without this most basic of safety measures, yet thousands are across the country.

We often read statements that students are medically treated and released home. This also provides a false sense of security and disregards the medical facts that carbon monoxide exposure can cause long-lasting and even permanent damage to the victims which may not present for days, weeks or months after the initial exposure. Intensive follow through, like with a sports concussion, on students involved in carbon monoxide incidents is lacking in our current system.

When it comes to child safety at any cost, it is often parents and their focused advocacy that changes the way a system chooses to turn a blind eye to potential dangers.

“This exposure often does not end up causing a large number of deaths, but it shouldn’t need that in order for anybody to take steps to address it anyway,” said Jerry Roseman, the director of environmental science and occupational safety and health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

For example, in a school district the size of Philadelphia, which has a budget of more than $3 billion, spending $1,000 per school for carbon monoxide monitoring “to save one life seems like it’s pretty cheap,” he said.


There are many dangers that parents are unable to protect our children from. However, if there is a real, functional, and affordable way to prevent injury or death to our children it is difficult to understand why those measures aren’t taken.

When children in a Dallas school were exposed for an entire day to fumes from a faulty boiler and went home with co poisoning symptoms, the administration checked for carbon monoxide after the school had closed for the day and detected nothing as the boiler had shut down. When a check the following morning during school hours showed elevated levels of carbon monoxide, 840 students were sent home. Five teachers went to the hospital, two of those by ambulance. Parents in the school district donated single station co detectors to prevent this from recurring. But this is not the solution.

An excuse for not acting quickly is the argument that schools need a more sophisticated system. Single-station carbon monoxide detectors are designed for single family residences. Schools are said to require what is called a supervised monitoring system.

While a comprehensive network of alarms and detectors is the ultimate goal, that is no excuse not to put a $20 alarm in every spaces where people breathe. 

“This type of system is capable of alerting teachers in every classroom or other area of possible CO exposure before CO concentrations reach a dangerous level.  Administration would be notified as well, and with the precise location of the detector closest to the source.  This feature is particularly helpful since boilers and furnaces are typically kept in rooms that are unoccupied and locked, which reduces the likelihood that someone will hear a CO alarm activation coming from inside the room.”

Because these systems require planning and effort, state legislators are encouraged “to provide support, instead of leaving this on the shoulders of local and school officials.”

Children are some of the most vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning due to their size and metabolism. By age 18, the average child has spent thousands of hours in a school setting. Those hours should be free of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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