After carbon monoxide deaths, safety campaign targets schoolchildren

Thursday, January 31, 2008

After three deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning on Blackstone Street, on the south side of Providence, the mayor and the fire department have launched an awareness campaign to encourage Providence residents to equip their homes with detectors of the lethal, invisible gas.

Brown residence halls are already equipped with the devices. All detectors, both for carbon monoxide and smoke, are checked at least annually, usually in June or August, said Carlos Fernandez, assistant vice president for Facilities Management and Engineering.

The campaign, which was advertised in local media and is slated to target high schools in the near future, alerts residents to a free hotline they can call to have the Fire Department install a carbon monoxide detector in their home. Providence ordinances require that residences have a carbon monoxide detector on every floor of the home that is frequently used, according to Captain Brian Kreizinger of the Providence Fire Department.

The campaign was prompted by the accidental deaths of an adult couple and the woman’s son, a 9th grade student at the downtown branch of the Met School downtown. The three were killed when carbon monoxide from an improperly installed boiler used to heat the residence leaked the gas into their home, according to a Jan. 10 statement from Mayor David Cicilline ’83.

“With the loss of these three individuals, Providence experienced a terrible tragedy and the most heartbreaking aspect of this incident is that it was totally preventable,” Cicilline said in the statement.

By communicating the message through schools, Kreizinger hopes to overcome the potential language barriers of targeting adults directly, some of whom might not speak English even though their children do. Students, he said, would ideally then encourage their parents to call the hotline if their house did not have a carbon monoxide detector. The campaign, which would start in high schools and then potentially expand to include younger children, is likely the first of its kind in Rhode Island, Kreizinger said.

Two-hundred carbon monoxide detectors were donated to the department by Benny’s, a chain of stores in southern New England, Kreizinger said, and the department is seeking other donations. Because their supply is limited, the department prioritizes the elderly and the handicapped when installing detectors and avoids installing units for landlords who could afford to do it themselves, Kreizinger added.

Kreizinger emphasized the danger of carbon monoxide, which is colorless, odorless, tasteless and the primary cause of death from accidental poisoning, he said.

“It’s a very sneaky kind of gas,” Kreizinger said. “You can be poisoned by it and not even realize it. It’s a peaceful death but an unnecessary one.”

Rhode Island hospitals may also receive additional equipment to automatically screen incoming patients for carbon monoxide poisoning, according to Andrea Bagnall Degos of the Rhode Island Department of Health. A 2006 pilot program at Rhode Island Hospital caught 11 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in a nine-month period that could have gone undetected, Degos said.

Degos said the equipment is part of a multifaceted approach to addressing carbon monoxide. “No one solution is going to take care of the entire problem,” she said.

Since the government’s building code is “very vague as to what the requirements are,” Brown has made its own standard for carbon monoxide detectors ­­- one per floor in smaller dorms and one outside every mechanical room in larger dorms, Fernandez said.

Carbon monoxide is a larger concern for buildings that are not connected to the main Brown heating system, including the Young Orchard Apartments, King House and West House. Whereas most buildings receive their heat from the central heating plant, these buildings have their heating units on site, according to Richard Bova, senior associate dean for residential life. Detectors in these dorms are checked often to ensure they are working, he said.

Students who live off-campus must be aware of the danger of carbon monoxide, Fernandez said. “They really have to work with their landlords” to ensure proper detectors are installed, he said. Bova said the University was preparing a communication to be sent to students who live off-campus, but was unsure whether it had been sent.

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