Utah does not require carbon monoxide detectors in schools, but one day after a leak at Montezuma Creek Elementary sent more than 50 people to the hospital and clinics, some officials are asking if that needs to change.
The leak at the remote school near the Colorado border happened because a four-inch exhaust pipe connected to a water heater became disconnected and vented the carbon monoxide into the building, according to Utah Fire Marshal Coy Porter.
On Monday morning, the gas sickened students and adults, leaving the school’s 49-year-old reading coach in critical condition. She was upgraded to serious condition Tuesday, when most of the school’s 300 students and staff returned to classes.
Porter said Utah currently has no regulations requiring carbon monoxide detectors in schools. Instead, regulations focus on structures where people sleep — residential buildings, hospitals, even prisons — because an unconscious person can die from exposure to the gas without ever waking up. Earlier this year, a national fire marshal group discussed requiring carbon monoxide detectors in every classroom, Porter said, but the proposal was shelved because it would have been too costly to implement.
Porter anticipates possibly making a recommendation — which would not be legally binding — that schools put detectors in places such as boiler rooms and kitchens where fuel is burned. Any recommendations that Porter issues would come after the conclusion of a risk-management study into the Montezuma Creek leak.
Jenefer Youngfield, Utah State Office of Education school construction and facilities safety specialist, said that, in future years, Utah schools will have to install carbon monoxide detectors. She explained that the International Code Council — which writes building codes — has included detector requirements in codes that will take effect in 2018 or, if the council passes an amendment, in 2015. After that time, Utah schools will have to include detectors in areas that burn fuel.
Youngfield called the requirement "right on track."
Dawn Davies, president-elect of the Utah PTA, said Tuesday that school districts around the state need to move quickly to ensure the same kind of accident doesn’t harm anymore people at other schools. Davies prefers a grass-roots strategy — in which parents and others question district officials about their detector policies — because passing legislation would take too long.
"Honestly, this needs to take place now," Davies said.
She said the issue could possibly be solved with an update to the building regulations, though she and her office were still studying the issue Tuesday to figure out how to proceed.
Before the Montezuma Creek incident, Davies was not aware that carbon monoxide detection at Utah schools was unregulated and not mandatory. Now that she is aware of the problem, she will be instructing regional PTA representatives to question their respective district officials about carbon monoxide detection.
The leak at Montezuma Creek Elementary was one of several that have occurred across the country recently. The Associated Press reports that since last fall at least five other schools have experienced leaks, including one last December in Atlanta that forced the hospitalization of more than 50 students and staff.
Like Montezuma Creek, the Atlanta school did not have detectors. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that only two states, Connecticut and Maryland, have laws requiring detectors in schools.
Porter said schools would probably be fine without detectors in every classroom as long as they put them near the sources of carbon monoxide. Some Utah schools already have detectors, he added, although they have installed them on their own.
A San Juan School District official said the school had no carbon-monoxide detectors, but that they now will be installed in all 12 of the district’s schools.
In the meantime, life was returning to normal in Montezuma Creek. District officials said that in addition to counseling at the school Tuesday morning, school representatives met with parents to answer questions about the incident and describe what measures are being taken to safeguard against a recurrence. Other meetings were planned Tuesday afternoon at the Navajo Nation’s Red Mesa and Aneth chapter houses.
The carbon monoxide caused dizziness, vomiting and fainting. But by Tuesday, all affected had been released from area hospitals, except for the reading coach, whose name was not released. The woman, who experienced the most severe exposure when she went into a mechanical room to investigate, remained at LDS Hospital, where she was being treated in a hyperbaric chamber.
Rick Bailey, San Juan County’s director of emergency management, said that a paramedic who suffered a broken ankle after falling from a retaining wall during Monday’s response was recovering at home.
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