Carbon Monoxide Reform Comes from Families Impacted

Carbon monoxide reform grows organically from the advocacy of the families that are left behind from the worst tragedies.

By Rebecca Martin

We often highlight the victims of incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning and the business, corporate and legislative entities connected to deficits in the regulations and codes. There are national business associations often associated with failure to establish mandatory carbon monoxide reform. Even in instances where regulations, state and local laws, and intent is clearly mandated; the system fails because of a lack of knowledgeable professionals, inspectors, and enforcers.

carbon monoxide reform

Carbon monoxide reform arises from the outrage of the families left behind that detectors that could have warned the victims, weren’t there.

Lack of action on the part of those entrusted with public health and safety inevitably comes to light in the wake of a potentially tragic or fatal carbon monoxide poisonings. Litigation becomes the catalyst to move public safety ahead. However, there is another force that that is profoundly effective in capturing the attention of news media and legislators: The voices and advocacy of parents of those directly affected by carbon monoxide exposure for carbon monoxide reform.

Andy’s Law – Oklahoma Carbon Monoxide Reform

Carbon monoxide deaths associated with rear ventilated boats were examined in 2000 due to several incidents which occurred over a short period of time. Two young brothers died after swimming in the vicinity of a swim platform and another young man was overcome by fumes while hanging onto a boat’s swim platform. The incidents resulted in a study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the US Coast Guard which looked at previous drowning deaths and determined that even sitting on a swim platform could result in fatal exposure to carbon monoxide. The recommendations as a result of this study stated that the most effective solution would be to require boat manufacturers to use cleaner burning engines, not unlike the automotive industry’s 1970s decision to install electronic fuel injection and catalytic converters.

Yet, in 2020, Cassi Free lost her nine-year-old son, Andy, during a recreational boat outing in Oklahoma. Andy had been sitting in the rear of the boat with his brothers during a day wakeboarding on Lake Eufaula. He collapsed into the water and perished, and his two brothers were treated for carbon monoxide exposure. Cassi Free brought the tragic death to the attention of legislators who introduced House Bill 2010, named “Andy’s Law” in honor of Andrew Free. In May, 2023, Andy’s Law was signed into law that requires boats in Oklahoma to have carbon monoxide warning stickers. The Department of Public Safety will develop the stickers and related literature which will be distributed through annual boat registration or when a title is transferred.

While the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning in open air environments encountered in recreational boating have been understood since 2000, the actions of parents like Brett and Cassi Free continue to bridge the gap between studies and industry regulation.

It is fair to note that education and warning labels often become a legislative placebo. Whether it is in the boating industry or in the use of portable generators, the focus is often on warnings rather than changes in the manufacture. The weight is shifted to the consumer rather than to the industry. But it is till shocking that legislative actions would be needed to include this most basic of precautions.

Carbon monoxide Reform as Simple as Detectors

Just as adequate warning labels seem to be a simple, common sense addition to certain manufactured items such as boats and generators, the presence of carbon monoxide detectors in schools are something that we, as the public, would assume are present. But often, even in the presence of regulations, there are often conditions in such regulations which do not ensure that carbon monoxide detectors are present in all school environments.

In Virginia, building codes required carbon monoxide detectors in all rental properties and all schools constructed after 2015. So when a carbon monoxide incident occurred in her children’s day care, Nikki James Zellner, a Navy wife, wanted answers. She discovered that not only were carbon monoxide detectors not present in her children’s day care, but that local medical facilities were not equipped to handle mass casualties.

“We found the highest-rated day care in our area. It hit all of the checkmarks, and what we did not know to ask, ‘What is their risk for carbon monoxide exposure on-site?’ We didn’t know to ask that question. We assumed smoke detectors, that our children would be protected. It is not the case.”

Zellner devoted the next year to this issue which she felt was a huge risk for military families who are often faced with new schools and day care options. As a result, in 2021, Virginia passed legislation requiring at least one carbon monoxide detector in all buildings.

Zellner also established the website which collects data on incidents from day cares to campuses. She collected over 300 press-reported incidents of carbon monoxide poisonings in day cares, schools, private schools, and campuses. Her website includes a very informative video explaining why our schools are less educated and prepared to handle a carbon monoxide poisoning incident than other disasters.

See also this CBS News story about an effort in Wisconsin.

Carbon Monoxide Awareness not a Recent Development

In 2009, Lauren Johnson, was involved in a master’s program in international human rights at the Korbel School of International Studies in Denver, Colorado.  She was excited to be leaving for Israel in a few days to head up a delegation of students travelling for internships at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her resume was filled with volunteer services and international studies. The future was exciting for Lauren. She died in her apartment, January 5, 2009 due to carbon monoxide caused by a damaged vent cap installed to a roof vent.

Just 6 weeks before Lauren’s death, Caroline and Parker Lofgren and their two children had died in an elite Aspen, Colorado rental which they had acquired in a silent auction. The cause was carbon monoxide poisoning.

As a result:

“In March of 2009, then Governor Bill Ritter, signed into law, the Lofgren Johnson Families Carbon Monoxide Safety Act. (HB 1091) This law requires C.O. detectors within 15 feet of every sleeping space in all new homes, homes that are sold, and rentals.”

Lauren Project

The Lauren Project was established to carry on the good works of Lauren Johnson. It has donated thousands of carbon monoxide detectors to low-income neighborhoods throughout the US and advocates for code revisions and legislation, as well as continuing Lauren’s passion for international human rights and justice through volunteer grants.

It is through the actions and activism of parents, who have either lost a child or been impacted by carbon monoxide poisoning, that these types of changes occur. We, as the public, see the news stories, but these are the stories of what comes after. They remind us that statistics are more than numbers and that there are faces behind the stories. Their love and passion are measured in actions which bring awareness and change so that our children will be safe.

When the education board shrugs and reflects that carbon monoxide detector regulations are building code concerns, they are not swayed and they push legislators to address these issues. When states continue business as usual without regulation and code review, they are reminded that lives are at stake. It shouldn’t be the consensus that action is only required after the fact. The prerequisite for change should not be a tragedy that sparks public outrage.

Carbon Monoxide Tragedies are on Repeat

What is outrageous is that for every story since 2020, there are dozens of other stories from a decade before, and a decade before that. And yet, to date, only a few states require carbon monoxide detectors in schools. And in some of those cases, only in newer construction. It bears repeating that in any building where there are fuel burning devices: furnaces, boilers, hot water heaters, gas appliances, it seems intuitive that carbon monoxide detectors should be required.

How can it be that only this year, Oklahoma is requiring warning labels in boats about the dangers of carbon monoxide when we knew in 2000 that people were dying in open air in numbers far higher than we knew?

Elderly and Young at Risk

The most vulnerable people in our population are the elderly and the very young. They are more likely to suffer the long-term deficits associated with carbon monoxide poisoning. That, in itself, speaks to a responsibility to ensure their safety.

“Anyone could make a mistake and regret it afterwards. But we’re keen to raise awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide so that everyone, especially those responsible, do the right things from now on to prevent avoidable deaths and injury.” From Jerry Hill, father of Tom Hill who died from carbon monoxide in 2015 

Editor’s Note: Often mentioned on our blogs is the Jenkins Foundation. While all of the above contributions have had immense impacts, the contributions of Kris Hauschildt in getting building and fire codes changed to universally require CO alarms, cannot be overstated.

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.

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