Leak spurs talk of school carbon monoxide alarms

MICHELLE L. PRICE, Associated Press
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A carbon monoxide alarm. (AP Photo)

A carbon monoxide alarm. (AP Photo)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A gas leak at a Utah elementary school that sickened more than 40 people has ignited concerns about the fact that the state is among many that don’t require schools to install carbon monoxide monitors.

Local and state officials said Tuesday they’re reconsidering Utah’s policy, noting monitors could have prevented levels of exposure that required three people to be airlifted to hospitals after a leak Monday at Montezuma Creek Elementary. The community of Montezuma Creek is on the Navajo reservation, about 15 miles from the Colorado border.

Utah Fire Marshal Coy Porter said his office likely will make a recommendation on carbon monoxide detectors in schools the weeks ahead.

The level of carbon monoxide accumulated in the school Monday morning indicated the leak began sometime over the weekend, Porter said.

“Had they had them in there,” Porter said of the detectors, students and staff “probably would have arrived at school with the alarms going off.”

State law requires the monitors only in some residences and institutional buildings where people sleep — such as jails, hospitals and nursing homes.

People with carbon-monoxide poisoning experience symptoms such as headaches, nausea and weakness, while higher levels of exposure leads to unconsciousness and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People who are asleep generally do not detect early symptoms, which can make exposure fatal for them.

Utah’s school policy is not unusual. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only two states have laws requiring monitors in schools.

The Montezuma Creek incident was not unique either: Since last November, at least five other schools across the country have reported carbon monoxide leaks.

A leak at an Atlanta elementary school last December sent more than 50 students and adults to hospitals.

That school did not have monitors, and Georgia officials considered requiring the detectors in schools. In September, they issued guidelines instead, recommending that all schools review their buildings and take steps to reduce the risk of exposure.

Connecticut law requires the monitors in all schools, public and private, and Maryland statutes require all newly constructed schools or remodeled schools to have the monitors.

In other states, carbon-monoxide monitors are required in schools because of building codes and local municipal rules.

Porter said some Utah schools do have them installed, typically in mechanical rooms or closets, but that’s because of school or district policies.

“It would probably be a good idea to have carbon monoxide in mechanical areas and kitchen areas where there are fuel-fired appliances,” Porter said.

Carbon monoxide is produced by combustion and can be found in fumes from vehicles, gas ranges and heating systems.

At Montezuma Creek Elementary, county officials have pointed to a water heater with a blocked ventilation system as the leak’s cause.

Shortly after class started Monday, officials said emergency calls came from the school with reports of students feeling dizzy and sick.

About 300 people were in the elementary school when it was evacuated, San Juan County spokesman Rick Bailey said.

More than 33 students and staff were taken by ambulance to Utah medical facilities, and a third-grade student and two women were airlifted to Colorado hospitals for treatment.

By evening, the two adults were still hospitalized. One of them, a female teacher, was flown back to a Utah hospital for treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, Bailey said.

He did not have updates on either woman’s condition Tuesday morning, but said he does not believe any of the other 44 people who received medical treatment Monday was held overnight.

San Juan School District Superintendent Douglas Wright did not immediately return messages seeking that information Tuesday morning. Utah hospital officials said they could not provide any updates because of health privacy laws.

The school reopened Tuesday morning, and local and school officials planned to hold meetings to discuss the issue with parents.

Bailey said officials with the San Juan County School District also are considering requiring the monitors in their schools.

District officials did not return immediately messages from The Associated Press.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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