Carbon Monoxide in Schools – A Community Disaster

Avoiding Carbon Monoxide in Schools Requires Detectors

Carbon monoxide in schools is near the top of our list of nightmares. We are involved in litigation in two of such cases in Illinois and in both, brain damage and permanent neuropsychiatric problems are the result. What makes brain damage so troubling is it hits children at a time in their life where they are the most vulnerable to neuropsychiatric problems. Who is likely to have a worse result from a radical change in cognition, mood and behavior than a teenager? Click here for our page on Brain Damage from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.

Carbon monoxide in schools can put a hole in an entire community. With a projection of 40% of those who have significant carboxyhemoglobin levels having brain damage, that can leave entire grade levels of kids in distress.  If it strikes a small town, the repercussions of that event could ripple for a generation. If 40% of the children in a community born in say 2001, 2002 and 2003, have neuropsychiatric issues, nearly every one who lives and works in that community may have a relative or a co-worker whose family is disrupted. Many of these problems are not mild. Mood and behavioral problems can occur even with those who seem to have no meaningful cognitive change. Suicide risk is greatly increased.

I am a trial lawyer. I am proud of my profession. I believe that my profession is one of the cornerstones in making our world safer. The lessons learned from litigation convince the corporate and government world to make our world safer as effectively as any regulation, rule or guideline. There must be consequences to harming people or it will just be considered more economically expedient to risk people’s lives than spend the money on safety. While I believe those things on a theoretical level, I know that in one very specific area, my actions in bring litigation, did save hundreds of children from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Illinois now has a law that requires that all schools have carbon monoxide detectors. Such law was the result of the North Mac Middle School poisoning which occurred in September of 2014. We sued North Mac school district and others in that case. The law requiring all schools to have carbon monoxide detectors took effect in January of 2016. On October 30, 2015, more than a hundred children were exposed to carbon monoxide at the Prussing Elementary School in Chicago. There were no working carbon monoxide detectors. We filed litigation against the Chicago Public Schools on November 3, 2015. Click here for the news account of that lawsuit. As a result of the controversy surrounding the Prussing School poisoning, the Chicago Public Schools moved up its time table to install working carbon monoxide detectors in all of its schools.

On December 3, 2015, there was another carbon monoxide in school event in a different Chicago Public School, this Time Horace Mann Elementary. But unlike the North Mac and Prussing Elementary poisonings, these kids got warned. Working carbon monoxide detectors warned the students and teachers of the presence of carbon monoxide before classmates started fainting. Click here for the news story about this event. While there could still be some risk of harm to these kids, they didn’t continue to breath this toxic air for an extended period of time before learning what was happening.

Our carbon monoxide litigation made a difference. The Chicago Public Schools finished installing 5,900 detectors the day before the Horace Mann carbon monoxide leak. Click here for that news event.  Those kids have a much better chance of living vital lives than those other children who didn’t get warned. In order to prevent injury from carbon monoxide in schools, all schools should have working carbon monoxide detectors, working detectors not underground in a boiler room where they may not be heard, but in every single classroom. Carbon monoxide is too dangerous and too hard to identify, without a working detector. I am proud of my role in helping the Chicago Public Schools learn this lesson. Insist on your school district doing the same.

Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.