Schools lack carbon monoxide detectors, GEMA provides insight to state mandates
by Mark Andrews
Dec 06, 2012 | 1203 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On Monday, potentially lethal carbon monoxide levels at an Atlanta elementary school with no detectors sent more than 40 students and seven adults to hospitals while 500 more had to evacuate, authorities said. Only 25 states require schools to have carbon monoxide detectors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and neither Bartow County nor Cartersville City schools are equipped with the detectors.

“It’s unlikely that schools around the state are equipped with such detectors,” Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education said in an Associated Press article.

State officials have said there are no code requirements for such equipment in K-12 schools.

On Tuesday, students at the affected Finch Elementary School in southwest Atlanta resumed classes at a middle school about four miles away. If such a situation were to occur locally in which students were displaced from their school of origin due to an emergency, school systems have relocation plans in place to continue educating students.

Cartersville Assistant Superintendent Ken Clouse said the primary relocation site for all K-12 schools in the district is the Cartersville Civic Center. The primary relocation site for Kids and Co. Pre-K is at Cartersville Primary School and its secondary site, along with all schools except the high school, is at Heritage Baptist Church.

The secondary site for CHS is at Tabernacle Baptist Church.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency is promoting Winter Weather Awareness Week through Friday and Lisa Newman, public information officer with GEMA, explained while having a carbon monoxide detector at one’s home or business is the best method of detecting a leak, there are ways to help prevent leaks during winter months.

“... When it gets cold, people tend to bring portable generators, camp stoves and grills into the home, so we encourage everybody to be aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide,” Newman said. “... Don’t bring any portable generators, camp stoves or grills into your home. They should only be used outside and kept at least 20 feet from windows, doors and vents.”

She added, “Particularly if there’s a power outage and people no longer have heat, they tend to go ahead and bring in these portable generators or camp stoves or grills into their home and you never do that.”

Other methods of preventing carbon monoxide leaks, Newman said, include making sure hot water heater and heating systems are inspected annually by a professional as well as making sure gas appliances are installed, adjusted and functioning properly.

Newman explained the warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

In an effort to keep safety a priority for schools during emergency situations, Sonny Perdue signed into law SB 74 in 1999.

According to GEMA, “Senate Bill 74 mandates all public schools to develop a safety plan addressing natural disasters, hazardous materials, transportation concerns, weapons and potential terrorist activities.”

“Carbon monoxide falls under the umbrella of ‘hazardous materials,’” Newman said.

GEMA also provides the option for local school districts to have their safety plan reviewed by the agency. Bartow County has had its plan approved in the past by the agency.

In Atlanta, firefighters found unsafe levels of carbon monoxide near a furnace at the school with a reading at 1,700 parts per million, said Atlanta Fire Capt. Marian McDaniel.

The colorless, odorless gas can be deadly at that concentration, said Stephanie Hon, assistant director of the Georgia Poison Center.

Atlanta Superintendent Erroll Davis praised school officials for quickly evacuating after children started getting sick and said officials were considering installing carbon monoxide detectors in schools.

Bridgette Berry, a grandmother of two students at the school, said the children — ages 6 and 7 — were checked out at the hospital.

The family was given a form instructing them to keep a close eye on the children and alert medical officials if they exhibit any symptoms such as a headache, Berry said.

She said school officials must put in carbon monoxide detectors.

“They’re not going back unless they get them,” Berry said.

Her son and the children’s father, Marquis Berry, said the family feels fortunate the situation wasn’t worse and frustrated about what he called a lack of communication from the school.

“I had to find out about it on the news,” he said.

District officials said they worked to notify parents, but some did not have updated contact information on file.

Of the 42 children taken to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding, the first four already were showing improved oxygen levels by the time they arrived, said Dr. Naghma Khan, the emergency room director.

She said those four received oxygen and were sent home with their parents since they were not demonstrating severe symptoms. The rest of the children were being released to their parents, she said. A few children still were being brought to the hospital by concerned parents, she said.

“We were really lucky that this didn’t go any further than that,” Khan said.

Davis, the superintendent, said the investigation continues into what caused the leak. He said authorities suspect the issue started with the boiler, which passed state inspection in 2011 and was not due for another look until 2013.

Other students were sent to a nearby middle school until their parents picked them up.

Stephen Alford, a school district spokesman, said the investigation is ongoing and the building has not yet been cleared for occupancy. Officials Monday were unsure of how long it may take for the investigation to be completed.

In Baltimore last year, officials vowed to put carbon monoxide detectors in all of the system’s approximately 200 schools after two carbon monoxide leaks within a week’s time at one of the schools.

City officials in Baltimore said the battery-powered detectors cost $15 each wholesale.

Hon, with the Georgia Poison Center, said children can be more susceptible to carbon monoxide than adults due to their size.

Most children did not show severe symptoms, likely because their exposure was brief and because the leak originated far from them, Hon said.

“The good news is that they sound like mild to moderate symptoms,” Hon said. “Luckily those kinds of exposures do not carry significant long-term health risks, especially with the children involved.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. For more information on Winter Weather Awareness week and to find a mobile application for emergency preparation, visit http://ready.ga.gov/GetReady/.