A Maryland father and seven children, ages 6 to 15, were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. The family’s power had been shut off because of unpaid bills, and they were using a generator inside the home for heat. The children were found in their beds – they likely died in their sleep. According to news reports, the family had never requested the electricity be turned on after moving into the rental home in November and instead were using an illegally connected meter. In past years, the family received utility assistance but apparently hadn’t requested it this year. Missing from these reports is whether the family’s rental home had a working carbon monoxide detector.
A New Jersey woman and her 7-year-old daughter also were found dead in their bank-owned rental home. They too had no power and were using a generator without proper ventilation. No carbon monoxide detectors were found in their home.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas produced from burning fossil fuels, such as stoves, fireplaces or furnaces, as well as automobiles. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that every year more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning unrelated to a fires. More than 20,000 people go to the emergency room and 4,000 people are hospitalized each year for carbon monoxide poisoning. Most carbon monoxide poisonings occur in homes and could have been prevented through installation of a working carbon monoxide detector (also known as an alarm, sensor, or device). The alarm sounds when dangerous levels of CO are detected, allowing people in the home the opportunity to get out.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states have laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in homes. Building codes and local ordinances may also address detectors. However, there is variation as to the depth and breadth of coverage of these laws across states. Both states where these most recent deaths occurred have carbon monoxide detector laws but it appears that the laws may have been woefully inadequate.
Maryland requires an alarm outside of each sleeping area and prohibits anyone from disabling the alarm. However, the statute only applies to homes built in 2008 or after. The average age of homes in Maryland is 29 years, making it likely that the family’s home, along with most homes in Maryland, was not covered.
New Jersey requires installation of carbon monoxide sensor devices for single and two-family homes (multi-family dwellings are covered under a different statute). The owner must get a certificate stating there is a working carbon monoxide device, or alternatively that there are no carbon monoxide hazards, before an initial occupancy or any change of occupancy including sales or leases. In this case, even if the bank did have the required certificate stating no carbon monoxide hazards were present at the beginning of the lease, the mother later brought the generator into the home which had no detector, unaware of the risk.
States should assess and strengthen carbon monoxide detector laws. To increase their effectiveness in preventing carbon monoxide poisonings, these laws should have broad coverage requiring carbon monoxide detectors be installed in all residential housing regardless of whether the building is owner-occupied or renter-occupied; single, two-family, or multi-family; new construction or an older build. The laws should not be limited to homes with a known carbon monoxide source present to prevent against poisoning from future hazards, like generators, that may be brought in. Laws should require installation according to the manufacturer’s instructions and National Fire Protection Association recommendations for location, number, and type of device. The laws should specify who (such as builder, owner, landlord, tenant) is responsible for installation, maintenance and battery changes, and the penalties for not doing so. Practical enforcement mechanisms are needed – it is unlikely that states have resources available for regular door-to-door safety checks for working carbon monoxide detectors, but verification that the carbon monoxide alarm is installed and in working order before issuance of certificate of occupancy, and prior to closing a sale, or finalizing a lease, may be an efficient enforcement mechanism. Further, for the greatest protection, these laws should not be limited to traditional housing – hotels, vacation rentals, nursing homes, dormitories, shelters, and other places where people regularly sleep should also be included.
These laws, along with education of the public on the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and programs providing detectors to those in need, can prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.
Stacie Kershner is the associate director of the Center for Law, Health & Society at Georgia State University College of Law.