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CO detectors not required in schools
STATE — Though it seems surprising, state law does not require schools to be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, confirmed Richard Taylor, senior planning and research analyst for the State Fire Marshal's Office.
It's simply because CO poisonings don't normally occur in schools, Taylor explained.
"It's a residential issue," he said. "I am unaware, to be quite honest, of that having happened in the state," he said, of CO leaks in schools.
The reason, explained Taylor, is schools typically have better ventilation than smaller residential dwellings.
"Doors are opening frequently and they [schools] are drafty, so the [CO] concentration level is probably not going to rise to the level that would typically trip a residential carbon monoxide detector," Taylor said.
According to reports, Maryland and Connecticut are the only two states in the entire U.S. that require a CO detector in school hallways.
In 2009, Taylor said, Maine state law changed to require all apartment units and single-family homes, especially where an addition has been added, to have at least one CO detector.
Last year the bill was amended to include college dormitories, sororities, fraternities, motels, hotels and inns, said Taylor.
"That's really where the tragedies or accidents occur primarily," he explained.
According to Taylor, symptoms of CO poisoning include nausea, vomiting, headache and other flu-like symptoms, making it difficult to know whether CO is truly the source.
"People often think, 'I will lay down and sleep this off,' and then things happen," he said, which is why having a CO detector in the home is important.
But what about schools? If CO detectors aren't required, how are leaks detected?
Taylor said because CO is odorless, tasteless and colorless, the only way to determine whether someone has been poisoned is to call the local fire department to come take a CO reading of the building.
But looking back into the records, he would be "surprised to see a call or even a false call for carbon monoxide in a school."
The increased frequency of CO-related poisonings over the past five years prompted the state to require CO detectors in residential buildings, Taylor said.
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CO exposure results in more than 100 emergency department visits each year in Maine.
On December 3, it was reported that 43 students and 10 adults had suffered from CO poisoning at Finch Elementary School in Atlanta, GA. According to reports, the CO reading was 1,700 parts per million, which is high.
Like Maine and other states, the school was not equipped with a CO detector, reports say.
In Maine, more than two-thirds of cases of CO poisoning occur between November and March, most of them due to malfunctioning heating systems or blocked flues and vents, reports MECDC, and a majority of those homes do not have a CO detector.
Dave Marshall, facilities manager for SAD 17, said despite CO detectors not being a state requirement for schools, a couple of locations throughout the district are still equipped with one.
He said a couple of the portable classrooms at Oxford Hills Middle School have detectors, as well as the garage at the Oxford Hills Technical School, where students work on vehicles and where CO concentration levels could be dangerous.
"I had a complaint, and it was the reason I put them [detectors] in," Marshall said of the OHMS portables. And while it wasn't a complaint for CO, he said, students and staff could smell fumes from the furnace and worried that a CO leak could follow.
"If somebody claims they can smell a furnace odor, then we just put a detector in right away," he said, but CO poisonings are not known to occur in the district, due to proper ventilation.
He also said all the schools in the district actually have an energy management system, which monitor levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) – a greenhouse gas.
"If they [schools] are not getting enough fresh air, it would automatically bring in more outside air into all of the spaces – classrooms, corridors, gyms," Marshall explained.
He said that the district's head custodians are also required to inspect the school's furnaces daily to make sure they are functioning properly. "We keep an eye on it," said Marshall, of potential CO leaks.
Not a bad idea
Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates said "it wouldn't be a bad idea" for the state to require CO detectors in schools, but the fact they aren't required doesn't make too much of a difference.
"It's like a lot of things," he said. "School buses aren't required to have seat belts. I think it's foolish.
"They say it's because buses are compartmentalized. In a bus rollover, I don't care how compartmentalized you are, you are going to get hurt."
As Fire Chief, Yates said getting called to a school for a CO poisoning is quite uncommon. "Things aren't closed up like they are in a home," he said.
However, he is aware poisonings can happen and could result in serious health complications, even death.
"When a bunch [of people] in the same area get it, that's when you got to be concerned," he said.