How will NC fight a 'silent killer?'
by Anna Oakes
Now, in the wake of these tragic and preventable deaths, movement is afoot to put carbon monoxide detectors in North Carolina hotels. But some experts are not convinced that standard detectors are enough to protect society's most vulnerable from injuries.
IT'S HAPPENED BEFORE
Before this month's incident at the Best Western -- which investigators linked to a pool water heater and faulty exhaust pipes -- Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs had no idea about the prevalence of similar incidents across the U.S.
"We were operating early on in this that this was probably an isolated case -- that there wasn't a frequency of occurrence with this that would show up very often," Isaacs said. Then, his phone started ringing. He learned there has been more than one room 225.
There was an incident at the AmericInn in International Falls, Minn., in May this year, where carbon monoxide from an improperly sized boiler sent an occupant to the hospital in critical condition.
And in Allentown, Pa., where a makeshift canopy at a Best Western trapped exhaust from propane-fired hot water heaters, killing 63-year-old Philip Prechtel in 2008. The hotel, which opened in 2006, was cited for a carbon monoxide leak again in 2011, according to media reports.
In Lake Delton, Wis., nine people at the Travelodge Wisconsin Dells were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning, linked to a malfunctioning hot tub heater. A hotel employee told a newspaper reporter that she and others started to feel headaches before noticing a carbon monoxide detector was flashing.
Isaacs also heard from Lesley Somloi, who said her daughter and her teenage friends suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning at a birthday party at a Country Inn and Suites in Huntersville in 2009. A lawsuit over the incident is still pending; Somloi is represented by Paul Byron of the personal injury law firm Overchuck & Byron in Orlando, Fla., who said, "I see these cases all over the United States, all the time."
"This has happened to more people than we probably realize," Isaacs said. "This has been a real eye-opener."
A CALL TO ACTION
Isaacs wasted no time in calling for carbon monoxide detectors in hotels, noting that North Carolina codes currently do not require detectors in hotels and other commercial properties although they are mandated in new single-family and two-family homes.
"We have got to stress how important it is. We have a dilemma here in the fact that carbon monoxide detectors are not required," Isaacs said. "What do we need to do to get elected officials' attention to try to address this?"
Speaking last week, state legislators said they were working to pass a bill with language requiring carbon monoxide detectors in hotels, but the 2013 legislative session is set to end in a few weeks.
N.C. Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson said Thursday he did not have an update on the progress of the effort.
State Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone, speaking last week, said he was taking a serious look at statewide and local options to address the issue.
"I don't want to enact a law that can be very expensive if it's not addressing the problem," he said.
Kerry Hall, spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Insurance, said carbon monoxide detector requirements for hotels would likely be considered as part of the 2015 update to the state building code. The detectors were included as a requirement in the 2012 International Building Code.
"The (N.C.) Building Code Council generally bases N.C. codes on the International Building Code from approximately three years earlier, so the 2012 IBC has not trickled down to the state level yet," Hall said. Legislative action could expedite adoption of the requirement, however.
On Wednesday, the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association sent letters to the governor and legislative leaders expressing support for carbon monoxide detectors at each potential carbon monoxide point source on hotel properties.
"Statewide, the security and safety of our guests is of paramount importance to our hoteliers. We are greatly disturbed by the recent deaths that occurred," said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the association.
Minges said the group is not aware of a state that requires detectors in every hotel room.
"I think our interest is trying to get something implemented quickly," she said. "We believe that this is a recommendation that would allow immediate action that would have prevented any of these deaths."
But Byron said placing detectors only at point source locations could potentially miss areas with elevated CO levels: "If you don't have at least one on every floor, or so many feet on every floor, you're not really canvassing the area."
Minges noted that requirements for other types of buildings should be examined as well, including schools, dormitories and senior citizens' homes.
NOT A PERFECT SOLUTION?
Carbon monoxide detectors are sold in home improvement stores and retail between $20 and $50.
Store-bought carbon monoxide detectors save lives, but they may not protect vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with health problems, and they also won't protect against chronic, low-level poisoning over time, some experts say.
That's because most detectors sold in stores use the UL 2034 standard. Under the standard, which is designed to prevent false alarms, detectors will alert only when carbon monoxide levels reach designated parts per million (ppm) amounts after specified amounts of time.
According to product labels, UL 2034 standard detectors will alert at 70 ppm after 60 to 240 minutes, at 150 ppm after 10 to 50 minutes and at 400 ppm after four to 15 minutes.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can lead to death or injury, including damage to the heart and neurological systems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, adverse health effects from carbon monoxide have been identified at blood levels as low as 20 percent (equivalent to a 160 ppm exposure) but the range could extend as low as 5 percent (32 ppm), said Jay Dempsey, CDCP health communication specialist.
A developing fetus is more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning, health experts say. One study by UCLA found that CO levels above 5 ppm were associated with babies being born underweight and with smaller heads.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease, it is difficult to determine the extent to which low-level doses of carbon monoxide cause lasting health effects. And because carbon monoxide symptoms mimic a range of common health problems, they may often go undiagnosed, said Bob Dwyer, director of training for the Carbon Monoxide Safety Association.
Carbon monoxide detectors sold at stores include this warning: "Individuals with medical problems may consider using warning devices which provide audible and visual signals for carbon monoxide concentrations under 30 ppm."
A few low-level carbon monoxide detectors are on the market -- including the CO Experts monitor and the NSI 3000 -- but they generally have to be ordered online and are more expensive.
"For crying out loud, is your family only worth $20?" Dwyer said.
Dwyer said that placing UL 2034 detectors in North Carolina hotels is not a waste of time, however.
"But they should also note the fact they're not protecting a good number of people as well as they need to be protected," Dwyer said. "People of vulnerable health need to be alerted sooner."
Scott Suddreth, director of Building Performance Engineering in Boone, said he has been passionate about carbon monoxide safety for several years now. His business offers educational presentations and workshops on the subject.
An advocate for low-level CO detectors, Suddreth said he is worried that "we're about to see more carbon monoxide deaths across the state."
Because buildings are constructed "tighter" than before for energy efficiency purposes, they are more subject to ventilation issues that can result in carbon monoxide buildup. In addition, state leaders have been easing up on inspection and training requirements, he said. It's a "perfect storm," he said.
Lesley Somloi said she no longer relies on others to protect herself and her family from carbon monoxide poisoning. She carries a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector with her everywhere she travels.
"My heart broke for the three people who lost their lives in Boone," she said. "Nobody should lose their life because of a simple carbon monoxide detector that's not there. We have to protect ourselves. We have to protect our families."