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.
Eventually, both types of detectors will remain on campus.
"We certainly hope that we have done everything that would guard against this, but you can never be 100 percent sure," Gereaux said.
Check the furnace first
In 2002, the Gas Technology Institute, a research and training organization for the gas industry, presented Clifford's findings to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which decided to do its own study.
The commission found that while the alarms did not always respond within the time limit required by industry standards, "they did not alarm so late as to expose consumers to a significant health risk." However, the commission recommended that the industry standard be strengthened to address several problems found in the study.
Between 1994 and 2004, the commission investigated 38 complaints of carbon monoxide detectors that failed to warn of hazardous conditions. Six of those investigations led to the recall of more than 1.3 million alarms.
Still, the commission encourages consumers to purchase carbon monoxide alarms for their homes.
"Even though in the past there have been problems with the alarms, they still should be used because they provide a good level of protection from carbon monoxide incidents," said commission spokesman Mark Ross.
The alarms are recommended as a secondary defense against poisoning; the most important precaution is the proper installation and regular inspection of fuel-burning appliances, the commission said.
Brand names were not included in the Gas Technology Institute study, which mirrored the results of earlier tests of carbon monoxide alarms by the institute and other organizations. The intent was to inform manufacturers of problems and not to endorse or denounce a specific brand, Clifford said.
Responding to tragedies
Only about 29 percent of homes in the United States have carbon monoxide detectors, the Home Safety Council estimates.
But the number could increase as more state and local governments pass laws and ordinances requiring installation of the alarms. Since 2000, at least 11 states have passed such laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Even more cities and counties have enacted similar requirements.
Much of the legislation was inspired by tragedies such as the one at Roanoke College. In Massachusetts last year, the legislature passed "Nicole's Law," named after 7-year-old Nicole Garofalo, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning when snowdrifts clogged a boiler vent outside her home.
In Virginia, Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, raised the issue at the urging of a constituent who nearly died during a beach vacation when carbon monoxide from a heated swimming pool seeped into a rental home.
Ruff's bill, a proposed expansion of the Landlord Tenant Act, would affect only rental homes with carbon-based fuel appliances and those with attached garages or adjacent to parking spaces.
"When I drew it up, I wasn't trying to solve all the problems in the world," Ruff said. "My goal was just to get it in the public realm."
That was before Walter Vierling, a 91-year-old retired pastor from Giles County, was found dead in a dorm room at Roanoke College. Vierling was attending a Lutheran church conference at the school. More than 100 people -- including members of Vierling's church group and teenage girls enrolled in a college prep program -- were treated at local hospitals after experiencing nausea and dizziness from the gas leak.
Last week, new details emerged. It took rescue workers more than three hours to find Vierling's body and two women sickened by the gas because their rooms were missed during an initial search of the dorm, according to written reports from the Salem Fire-EMS Department.
At the time of the carbon monoxide buildup, there were no detectors in place to warn residents.
Swamped by false alarms
By taking time to study the issue of requiring carbon monoxide alarms, Virginia could learn some lessons from other localities.
In 1994, after Chicago became the first major city to pass such an ordinance, the city fire department was swamped with more than 10,000 carbon monoxide calls in three months -- almost all of them false alarms. The city had to advise residents not to call 911 every time the "hypersensitive" alarms went off, said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
Although alarm technology has improved since then, local emergency responders are still dealing with "quite a few false calls on CO detectors," said Ralph Tartaglia, assistant chief of operations for the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department.
Of the 18 times rescue officials were called to Roanoke homes for carbon monoxide alarms between Jan. 1, 2005, and Aug. 6, 2006, the gas was found inside the home seven times.
In Roanoke County, there was just one confirmed case of carbon monoxide exposure -- from batteries that a man was charging in his basement -- out of 38 calls during the same time period.
Officials in Roanoke and Roanoke County said they were not aware of any cases in which someone was poisoned by carbon monoxide that went undetected by an alarm in their home.
Responding to false alarms has not kept local fire departments from encouraging citizens to install carbon monoxide detectors.
"Nothing's foolproof," Tartaglia said. "They're very good pieces of equipment; they're gone off and saved some people. ... I'd rather go on a false call than a real one. That way, nobody's dying."
At Roanoke College, the alarms have already provided some peace of mind to students such as Trover Wilson, a resident adviser who is living in room 511 of Sections -- the room that Vierling died in.
"I'm not really concerned," Wilson said.
With all the new alarms and the school's emphasis on safety, he said, "I think my room is probably the safest one on campus."
Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning
Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas-, oil-, or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
Install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. If the detector sounds, leave your home immediately and call 911.
Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseated.
Don't use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement or garage. When using a device outside, keep it away from windows.
Don't run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open.
Don't burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't vented.
Don't heat your house with a gas oven.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ROANOKE, VIRGINIA $1.50SUNDAY AUGUST 27, 2006
News stories provided by third parties are not edited by "Site Publication" staff. For suggestions and comments, please click the Contact link at the bottom of this page.