Nearly 50 people, including 42 students, were sent to the hospital after potentially lethal carbon monoxide levels were found at an Atlanta elementary school Monday, prompting some local schools to enhance safety measures.
On Monday, firefighters found unsafe levels of carbon monoxide — as high as 1,700 parts per million — near a furnace at Finch Elementary School in southwest Atlanta.
Those exposed to the gas can start having medical issues at 50 parts per million, according to Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center.
“When I talk about carbon monoxide in lectures, I always like to point out how it still remains the No. 1 killer of any poison each year,” he said.
Over the last decade, Lopez said, the center has received more than 1,000 calls reporting carbon monoxide poisoning. Over the same time span, three Georgians have died as a result of exposure to the gas.
None of those hospitalized Monday, however, were found to have life-threatening levels of carbon monoxide in their bloodstream.
But some local schools are not taking any chances in the wake of the incident.
Gainesville City Schools currently uses carbon monoxide detectors in its newer schools and in areas of higher probability.
Now facility employees are installing more detectors in some of the older buildings.
“The places where we know we’ve got (potential) issues, we’ve already got (detectors),” said Keith Vincent, maintenance and operations director for Gainesville. “Anywhere we have gas lines or things like that, we do have them in those areas, but we’re just going to take precautions and put them all throughout the building.”
His crew will have battery-operated detectors installed in all schools, including Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy and Centennial Arts Academy, by the end of the week.
“We have them in the newer schools, it’s just the older schools that we’re working on,” Vincent said. “We will have them in each building.”
The state does not require public buildings, including schools, to have carbon monoxide detectors.
Hall County Schools does not have carbon monoxide detectors in each building. The system, however, has three handheld devices, operated by a county technician, to check for the gas on a case-by-case basis.
But Gordon Higgins, spokesman for the system, said it has not had an issue with a gas leak in at least 25 years — likely longer.
“A lot of times you go by historical precedent, too,” said Higgins. “If there have been issues in the past where it has occurred, or if there seems to be a pattern or a recurring pattern, obviously it’s something you’d definitely want to address. Not to say safety is not always foremost on our minds — it is. We always want to make sure our students are safe, but from a historical perspective, carbon monoxide leaks have just not been a problem in our schools at this point.”
He said there have been no talks of installing detectors in the schools after what happened in Atlanta, but said the maintenance staff checks heating and air systems at each school annually, along with replacing old equipment when necessary.
“That’s for two reasons,” said Higgins. “It’s for energy efficiency, but also it would be more dependable, reliable and safer.”
Twenty-five states have laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in certain residential buildings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut takes that a step further and requires detectors in all public and nonpublic schools, while Maryland recently enacted a law requiring detectors in newly constructed and remodeled schools.
Lopez said “it would be wise” to require schools to have certified inspections of heating and air systems, as well as installing detectors in each building.
“To me it sounds ludicrous that we wouldn’t have already put those in place,” he said. “When you’re talking about how we can minimize or prevent what happened in Atlanta, checking the heating and air systems and having the carbon monoxide detectors are going to be key. Then it’s a matter of recognizing signs and symptoms and understanding what has to be done for treatment.”
Initial exposure to carbon monoxide, according to Lopez, can cause flulike symptoms. More intense exposure can lead to wavering consciousness, convulsions or even death.
Many times, especially during winter months, poisoning can be confused with an actual flu. The “very young and the very old,” Lopez said, are the most susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning.
For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning, including what to watch for and how to treat it, visit www.georgiapoisoncenter.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.