Last September, New Jersey became the sixth state to require schools to install carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in the immediate vicinity of all fuel-burning appliances. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas that is a product of combustion and the leading cause of accidental poisoning in the U.S.
Requiring alarms has the potential to save lives, but whether the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) regulations will actually do so depends on how well school districts comply. Unfortunately, the DCA rules have weaknesses that districts must address. Potential CO sources in schools are numerous. Some are likely covered by the DCA regulations and some are not.
Sources that are likely covered:
• Gas and oil heating and cooling systems: boilers, furnaces, central and unitary equipment.
• Generators: permanent and portable.
• Natural gas and propane appliances: water heaters, ranges, stoves and ovens and laundry washers and dryers.
• Gasoline powered floor polishers, lawnmowers, weed eaters, leaf blowers, chainsaws, power washers and other tools.
Because CO gas can travel in the air, alarms are also required in hallways connected to the space with the source and any spaces connected to the source by ventilation ductwork or shafts for stairs, elevators or ventilation.
Sources that are likely not covered:
• Bunsen burners, ovens and kilns in labs.
• Welding and burning.
• Vehicles idling near exterior doors, windows, air intake vents and loading docks.
• Vehicles idling in repair garages, whether for vocational education or maintenance of district vehicles.
As equipment ages, the potential for malfunction increases. Therefore, routine inspection and regular maintenance of the above sources are key to preventing them from emitting CO. Sources that are vented to the outdoors may discharge indoors if chimneys or vents are blocked, for example, by snow, leaves, nests or during renovations. Portable sources should be located away from air intakes and entrances.
Without a written protocol and staff training, the tendency may well be to disable and ignore sounding alarms so that school is not disrupted.
In existing schools, compliance with the law may be met through the use of battery-operated or plug-in type CO alarms instead of hard-wired alarms. In new schools and schools undergoing renovations, the alarms must be hard-wired.
Only alarms are required, not higher cost detectors. CO detectors are system-connected devices that sense CO gas and communicate with a control panel monitored by a trained individual. Single station CO alarms are stand-alone devices with an integral audible alarm. Detectors are better than alarms because they are monitored.
DCA rules do not require alarms in all locations where CO may be a problem such as repair garages, where the presence of CO may be expected as a function of the normal use of the space. In such locations, CO alarms must be provided just outside such spaces at the points where these spaces connect to other occupiable spaces. Yet, repair garages are one of the most likely places for staff and students to encounter CO exposure and should have alarms.
Most unfortunately, the DCA regulation doesn’t specify how a school district should respond when an alarm sounds or how staff should be trained. Without a written protocol and staff training, the tendency may well be to disable and ignore sounding alarms so that school is not disrupted.
To minimize sounding and “nuisance” calls to fire departments from non-life-threatening situations, alarms are designed not to sound at CO levels below 30 parts per million part of air (ppm) (See bit.ly/coalarmlevels). Yet CO has possible health effects at much lower levels. EPA has set 9 ppm as an eight-hour limit and 35 ppm as a one-hour limit, both not to be exceeded indoors more than once a year (See bit.ly/cotoxprofile).
But at 40 ppm of CO, alarms take 10 hours to sound. Only at 400 ppm do they sound in four to 15 minutes. Because they are designed only to prevent death, alarms allow health to be endangered.
Eileen Senn holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Duquesne University and a Master of Science in Occupational Health from Temple University. She is an industrial hygiene consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.
DCA Code Enforcement Assistance:
Protocol for response to CO detector activation, University of Albany Facilities Management, March 3, 2016, three pages: bit.ly/coprotocol
When inhaled, CO combines with hemoglobin in red blood cells to form substances that decrease oxygen levels. The symptoms of CO poisoning often imitate those of common illnesses such as the flu. Victims of low level CO poisoning often experience mild headaches, shortage of breath, nausea, drowsiness and dizzy spells. At higher levels, CO poisoning can cause severe headaches, mental confusion, impairment of vision or hearing, vomiting, fatigue, loss of consciousness, and coma. Severe CO poisoning can cause an irregular heartbeat, amnesia, brain damage, coma, and eventually death. Poisoning can lead to long-term damage to the heart and nervous system.
Studies have shown a high percentage of the population is particularly vulnerable to CO, including low levels over a longer period of time. This high-risk group includes children, pregnant women and their developing fetuses, the elderly and those with heart and lung disorders.
Local associations and their health and safety committees should work with their UniServ field representatives to take the following actions:
• Request the district provide a listing of the locations of potential sources of CO and the CO alarms in each school building and cross-check to ensure all sources are covered.
• Stress the need for the district to establish a response protocol if an alarm sounds such as the one listed under “For more information.” The protocol should mandate evacuation and calling the fire department to use a CO meter to measure how much CO is present and identify the source.
• Insist that school staff be trained on the symptoms of CO poisoning and the emergency plan of action when symptoms of CO poisoning are observed or a CO alarm sounds.
• Contact DCA or the local fire department with technical questions.