Beating the silent killer

Updated March 13, 2015

Carbon monoxide is an insidious killer, one with few telltale signs. But experts say it’s a killer that can be monitored and defeated easily with a few precautions.

“It is odorless, it is tasteless,” said Frank Conway, chief of the Ohio fire marshal’s Fire Prevention Bureau. “It’s referred to as a ‘silent killer.’”

Three children died and a fourth was hospitalized by a surge of carbon monoxide in a Troy home. A broken chimney flue has been blamed for the carbon monoxide poisoning of the Troy children.

Reports of carbon monoxide poisoning abound, especially in the winter. On Monday, an adult and three children were transported from a North Dixie Drive daycare near Dayton to area hospitals after a carbon monoxide leak. Earlier this month, two people were killed by carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in a Newburgh, N.Y. home. This week, an elderly couple was found dead in a Dublin, Ireland home, with CO suspected.

“The thing with carbon monoxide: It boils down to time and exposure,” Conway said. “The higher the exposure, the less time you can be in that type of environment.”

As of January, 29 states had enacted laws requiring some kind of CO alarms in homes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Ohio area municipal officials say that since 2013, state regulations require new homes — or homes remodeled in particular ways — to have CO detectors.

Troy police Capt. Chris Anderson said he did not believe the Troy home had a detector.

“I did not hear anybody mention one, nor did I see one,” Anderson said.

If the home had a detector, it’s impossible to say whether it would have saved lives, said Lisa Colwell, a building official with the city of Oxford, which has its own city laws requiring CO alarms.

“It may have saved another life or two,” she said.

State requirements

Troy police have completed the investigation and turned the case over to Miami County Prosecutor Anthony Kendell.

Asked if police will recommend charges against anyone, Anderson said. “I don’t know if we’ll recommend,” he said. “We will discuss it with him.”

A message seeking comment was left with Kendell. James T. Ambrose, a Kettering attorney representing Joseph and Kathy Caldwell, the owners of the home where the Troy family lived, said Friday he had not heard from prosecutors nor had he seen the Troy investigation report.

Ohio law requires CO detectors be installed outside each bedroom in new homes that use gas or propane or include an attached garage. Any new bedroom added to older existing buildings will require the placement of a CO detector, as well. A code passed by the Ohio Department of Commerce’s Board of Building Standards in 2012 became effective Jan. 1, 2013.

“If it’s a brand new building, yes (a detector is required),” said Tom Robillard, Kettering planning and development director. “If you’re doing a certain amount of remodeling, it’s yes or no.”

Kettering has no additional requirements beyond state regulations, he said.

In Oxford, the city’s law is more “restrictive” than the state’s, Colwell said.

The law in Oxford — home to Miami University’s 15,460 undergraduate students — focuses on student rental housing. All existing structures with fossil-fuel burning equipment or an attached garage must have a CO detector. (The state law triggers a CO detector requirement in existing homes if a new bedroom or garage is built or a new furnace is installed.)

Colwell said Oxford City Council members were swayed by the presentation of a North Carolina fire official on the need for CO detectors.

“It was really an impressive presentation,” she recalled. “It convinced the people on council who were present.”

Springfield follows the state mandate, said Roger Mick, certified building official for that city.

But Mick noted that he can’t go into homes without reason. Building code enforcement doesn’t come into play until a possible violation or inspection requirement somehow comes to the city’s attention.

“Can we mandate someone to do something behind the closed doors of their home? If it isn’t mandated by some reason: No,” Mick said.

Terry Welker, Kettering chief building inspector, said city inspectors are not “building-police.”

“We can’t go into a building without their (owners) permission,” Welker said.

The state requirement on CO alarms is “not controversial at all,” Welker said. Homebuilders and subcontractors in Ohio have not resisted the requirement. It’s seen simply as the “the cost of doing business now,” he said.

“I do think the (state) code is adequate to the cause, but just like smoke detectors, they require attention on a regular basis by the owner,” he said.

Robillard agreed the state code is adequate, but he said there remains a “gap” beyond local enforcement. That’s where education, outreach and local grant programs come in.

“It takes more than regulations,” Robillard said.

Brian Whitten, chief of Ohio fire code enforcement, said there were elevated CO levels in the Butler Twp. day care, Grandma’s Child Development, due to a malfunctioning heating and ventilation system. He did not think the center had a CO detector.

He declined to comment on whether the state’s requirements on CO detectors was adequate or needed to be tougher.

“It’s the minimum standard that you’re required to have,” Whitten said of the state code. “When local jurisdictions start requiring (tougher) standards, that’s great.”

“Any additional safety devices are always a good idea,” he added.

Welker noted that state codes are enforced by county, city and township building officials.

A CO detector is good for eight years while a smoke alarm should be good for ten, Conway said. Batteries for both should be checked twice a year, he and others said.

Detectors are ‘cheap’

Dr. Robert Rosenthal, director of hyberbaric medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said that after reading a Dayton Daily News story about the deaths in Troy, he called his wife and asked her to check the batteries in their home’s CO detector.

“I’m not kidding,” he said in a phone interview. “I just called her an hour ago.”

CO poisoning is eminently preventable, he said.

“And carbon monoxide detectors are cheap,” he added. “They are easy to find.”

The amount of CO in a home’s air will rise and fall as a home’s furnace cycles on and off during cold weather, he said. People often experience symptoms — feeling alternately good or bad — in conjunction with those cycles, he said. Beyond flu-like symptoms, nothing necessarily raises an alarm if CO levels are dangerously high, he said.

“If you’re sleeping, you’ll just stay asleep,” Rosenthal said. “It’s not painful.”

If a CO alarm goes off, don’t try to determine parts per million or CO levels in your home, Rosenthal advised. Just get out of the house with loved ones. Call 911 and let fire professionals deal with the situation.

Chimney flues should be checked before the heating season, Conway said. Portable generators should be positioned well outside of homes and garages, well away from a residence.

Proper maintenance of fossil fuel-burning equipment is crucial, said Dan Sammon, chief building official for Centerville.

“How can you live in a home with a gas furnace and not realize you have to maintain it?” he said.

The city of Kettering last week updated a grant program to make CO detectors available to qualified residents. A family of four will qualify for free installation of a smoke or CO detector if household income is less than $48,150. Residents can apply for the detectors through the city’s planning and development department. (To request an application, call (937) 296-3020.)

Matthew Funk, Beavercreek code enforcement officer, said his city contracts building services out to Greene County Building Regulation. Beavercreek has no local law on the books beyond what the state requires, he said.

Sammon said Centerville uses the Ohio residential code. “We pretty much stick to what the state requires,” he said.

A Huber Heights zoning official and a Hamilton building official both said their cities rely on state requirements. If cities have their own laws on CO detectors, those laws would have to be more stringent, not less, than the state’s own requirements, said Ken Rivera, a Hamilton building official.

Troy Assistant Fire Chief Matthew Simmons says Troy’s fire department recommends to citizens that they have CO detectors, but no city legislation requiring them is in the works. “There’s no active law in the city of Troy for requiring current citizens” to have CO alarms, he said.

Still, Troy is hoping to take advantage of a grant program to make the detectors available to residents who can’t afford them, Simmons said.

Costs for detectors can range from $25 to $50, he said. The city hopes to make available detectors that serve dual functions, monitoring both carbon monoxide and smoke levels. Residents requesting a detector should call 339-0495.

There’s also a Troy Foundation donation program to fund the detectors, he said.

“From now now on, we’re really going to highly stress the importance of working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors,” Simmons said.