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Carbon monoxide detectors save lives. Why aren't they required everywhere?

Carbon monoxide detectors remain optional
Carbon monoxide detection systems remain optional despite the dangers 03:37

Appleton, Wisconsin — After becoming sick with carbon monoxide poisoning in her home, Ashley Wilson started asking questions about CO alarms in her children's schools. 

She's discovered something that experts already know. CO alarms are not required in most buildings, including her son's elementary school. 

"I was surprised," Jack Knaack, the principal of Richmond Elementary School, told consumer correspondent Ash-har Quraishi. 

"I'm surprised that very few have them anywhere in the state of Wisconsin and even around the country. It's hit and miss," he said. 

In February of 2020, Wilson says her family was poisoned after carbon monoxide gas seeped in from a boiler room below her former apartment. She says no alarms were installed. 

"I was just thankful that we were able to get out of there — make the phone call, go to the emergency room and survive it, because a lot of people don't," said Wilson. 

The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit group that recommends and proposes codes and standards for fire protection devices, says carbon monoxide detection systems can save lives. Even first responders carry portable devices on calls for their safety. 

Why it's important to treat carbon monoxide poisoning right away 01:39

Currently, there are no federal laws requiring CO alarms in buildings. Local laws regarding CO alarms and detectors vary across counties and cities and towns. There are exceptions to the regulations as well. Some require them in new buildings but not in existing ones. Some require them in sleeping spaces while other requirements apply only to buildings with a fuel-burning source. 

The most recent federal law, Nicholas and Zachary Burt Memorial Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act of 2021, signed by the president, encourages states to adopt tougher standards but does not require the use of CO detectors. It authorizes the Consumer Protection Safety Commission to provide resources to states and encourages the use of alarms. It also establishes a grant program to help states sponsor awareness programs.  

But Congress was able to require one federal agency to mandate CO alarms. Following multiple carbon monoxide poisoning deaths, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set a deadline of December 27th to have carbon monoxide alarms installed in 3 million of its units nationwide. 

In the past few months, there have been several cases of CO poisoning at schools and day care centers.  

In October, 8 people were taken to a hospital after falling ill at a Kansas City, Missouri, elementary school due to a carbon monoxide leak. And few weeks before that, in Pennsylvania 16 people were sickened at an Allentown day care.  

Neither Pennsylvania nor Missouri require CO detectors in day care centers. And among 8 other states, some don't require them in schools, including Wisconsin.   

 "It would be completely preventable if we would, like, put detection in indoor spaces, but we don't," Ashley Wilson said. 

The CDC says more than 400 Americans die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning each year and 20,000 more visit emergency rooms across America. 

Faulty boilers, heaters and other fuel-burning sources like generators are often the source. 

Attorney Gordon Johnson, an attorney specializing in carbon monoxide cases, says along with detection, maintaining furnaces, generators and fuel-burning sources is also very important. 

"We don't spend enough money on training maintenance people, on doing maintenance, replacing furnaces and hot water heaters," he said. 

"It would make a tremendous difference, and that would eliminate probably 80[%] to 90% of the poisonings."

Ashley and her husband Travis started a one-family campaign for change, making calls and sending emails to get CO detectors installed in their children's school. 

"I was angry, but our anger led to something positive," Travis Wilson said. 

The school district approved detectors in all schools in the district, thanks to Wilsons' efforts. 

"They're put up," said Knaack, pointing to one of the detectors. They're tested twice a month by a building engineer." 

Ashely is now working to change the law in Wisconsin. She wants all schools and day care facilities to require detectors in all the buildings. 

"It was so easy to do. I don't know why someone else hasn't already done it," she said. 

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