Within weeks of a fatal carbon monoxide leak at Roanoke College, the school spent $50,000 to install carbon monoxide alarms in every building on campus. As classes resume this week, the alarms will likely provide a sense of protection from a deadly gas that cannot be seen, smelled or tasted.
But how well will they work?
According to a 2002 study by the Gas Technology Institute, a substantial portion of commercially available carbon monoxide detectors failed to issue alarms when exposed to potentially lethal levels of carbon monoxide.
The study found that the alarms were most prone to failing in the low humidity of winter months, when furnaces that can leak carbon monoxide are burning.
"So people who are trying to protect themselves, when they need it the most, are not being protected," said Paul Clifford, a California scientist who authored the report. "That's a huge problem."
Another problem was false alarms. "Because the alarms have been crying wolf, people don't quite believe them," Clifford said.
While acknowledging past problems with the alarms, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission still recommends their use as a second line of defense against carbon monoxide poisoning.
The detectors, which sell for $20 to $60 in most hardware and department stores, have been in the spotlight since a July 14 carbon monoxide leak in a Roanoke College dormitory. One person died and 113 were sent to hospitals. The leak has been blamed on a malfunctioning gas-powered hot water heater in the basement of the Sections dormitory.
The fallout could extend far beyond the Salem campus; some say the events of July 14 could lead to legislation at both the local and state levels requiring carbon monoxide detectors in certain buildings.
"When something like that happens, people's reaction is they want to fix the problem, so it's common for city councils to look around and say: 'There's a quick technological fix,' " Clifford said. "But unfortunately, that doesn't solve the problem, because the carbon monoxide detectors don't work that well."
At its session earlier this year, the General Assembly delayed action on proposed legislation that would have mandated carbon monoxide detectors in certain rental homes. The bill was sent to the state Housing Commission for study and will be considered again next year.
"No doubt, there will be discussions about reliability" of the alarms, said Emory Rodgers, deputy director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Other issues will likely be a cost-benefit analysis and the question of whether the bill should be expanded to cover more homes, Rodgers said.
Manufacturers of carbon monoxide alarms take issue with Clifford's research. Some of the detectors were older models that have since been improved, two manufacturers said.
"Like our computers and our cellphones, carbon monoxide alarm technology continues to change as well," said Wendy Gifford, director of external affairs for Invensys, the maker of Firex smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
Standards for the alarms set by Underwriters Laboratories have been revised three times since 1989, said Heather Caldwell, a spokeswoman for Kidde, another manufacturer. The most recent changes, which will take effect next year, are aimed at improving the alarms' digital displays and their performance in low humidity.
Roanoke College spokeswoman Teresa Gereaux said school officials were not aware of the Gas Technology Institute study. The college did consult several other organizations immediately after the gas leak before purchasing from area stores carbon monoxide detectors that are now installed in every dorm hallway, all mechanical rooms and throughout the rest of the school's buildings.
After additional research, the school ordered what Gereaux called "commercial grade" detectors, which are considered more sophisticated than those available at the retail level, that will be incorporated into a campus-wide alarm system. Those 45 or so detectors will not be available until sometime after classes start Wednesday.