Scrutiny on boiler after school poisoning

Could Georgia become the third state to mandate carbon monoxide detectors in schools?

The carbon monoxide scare that sent more than 30 students from Atlanta’s Finch Elementary School to the hospital ended without serious casualties. But the incident had some officials on Tuesday echoing the words of upset parents — they ought to put detection devices in schools — while others worried about the cost.

Carbon monoxide detectors have been mandatory in some types of new residential construction in Georgia for several years, but devices that can sense the colorless and odorless yet lethal gas are not required in the buildings where kids spend most of their days.

“I have three in my home,” said Latasha Martin, who has four children at Finch. “Why should you have none in the school?”

It’s a well-timed question, with Georgia’s next legislative session set to begin in a month.

The students, plus 10 adults, were taken to hospitals Monday after several felt faint, complaining of nausea. Students from Finch Elementary will be attending classes at Kennedy Middle School again Wednesday. Atlanta fire department officials said the repairs to the school’s boiler must be made and certified before the building can reopen. Monday’s measurements found levels of carbon monoxide in the school’s boiler room that exceeded the safety threshold by a factor of 30.

“If somebody had stayed in there for a few minutes without a breathing apparatus, they’d have been a goner,” said state Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph T. Hudgens. His office regulates safety in school buildings, and he said lawmakers ought to consider requiring carbon monoxide detectors in schools, as well as nursing homes and day-care facilities.

“I think it’s something that the legislature needs to take a good hard look at,” Hudgens said.

For some, though, cost is a concern.

Only two states — Connecticut and Maryland — regard carbon monoxide as a serious enough threat to mandate detectors in schools. School officials in both states said the cost can range from nominal to thousands of dollars per school, depending upon quality. The Baltimore City Public Schools got simple battery-operated devices for free.

Brooks Coleman, who chairs the education committee in the Georgia House of Representatives, said he may call a meeting of school safety experts to weigh the danger in schools.

“It concerns me very much what happened,” said Coleman, R-Duluth. “But I don’t want a knee-jerk reaction.”

His counterpart in the Senate, Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said a state mandate may not be fair, since the state treasury won’t be paying for the devices.

“It’s probably something that should be left up to the locals to decide,” Millar said.

School officials across metro Atlanta were scrambling to assess the risk, with some saying they would consider installing detectors regardless of what the state does.

Cobb Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said by e-mail that his district will research the feasibility of installing detectors in the district’s 114 school buildings. He stressed, though, that the district supports “reasonable, practical and affordable” school safety initiatives.

David Banks, one of Cobb’s seven school board members, questioned how significant a danger carbon monoxide posed in schools. “Student safety is a top priority. But, if you don’t have that situation, why put a unit in a school that would never be activated?” he said.

Fellow board member David Morgan, though, said detectors should be installed in all Cobb schools right away. “We shouldn’t sit around and wait for the state,” he said. “This is a safety issue for school children, faculty and staff.”

Atlanta school board member Courtney English had a similar reaction, saying that, because of Monday’s incident, he will propose carbon monoxide detectors in all Atlanta Public Schools. “I’m not sure what the state should or should not do, but APS has to take every precaution to make sure its kids are in a safe environment,” English said.

Robert Avossa, the Fulton County superintendent, said he didn’t know if he’d mandate the detectors at his schools absent a state law. More time is needed to study the issue, he said. “I would support any law that keeps safety as the No. 1 priority,” Avossa said.

In Gwinnett County, school board member Mary Kay Murphy said installing the detectors in all schools could be expensive. She said, however, that “student safety is our most important consideration.”

In Baltimore, two carbon monoxide incidents at the same school a couple years ago — the gas was traced to a faulty oven — led to all schools being outfitted with detectors, said Keith Scroggins, the chief operating officer.

The city was buying inexpensive, battery-operated units in bulk and giving them to homeowners, and gave the school system 300 of them, Scroggins said. “Any city or county could do the same thing,” he said.

Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut chose a more expensive route to comply with a new state law that took effect this year. Claudio Bazzano, executive director of facilities for the school district, said Hartford schools rushed to comply by installing units that cost between $100 and $500 in all boiler rooms. They’re better than simple battery-operated units because they’re hardwired into the electrical system, with a backup battery, he said. The district will eventually install more expensive systems hardwired into school alarm systems. Bazzano recently received a $94,000 bid to outfit 14 schools — a cost of about $7,000 a school.

“Of course, one is safer than the other. It depends on how far you want to go,” Bazzano said. “You can’t put a price tag on losing a life.”

In 2009, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs began requiring that all new one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses three stories or less have carbon monoxide detectors in sleeping areas. Extending that requirement to schools likely would entail public hearings taking up to a year.

State Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, asked for the residential requirement, and said the Finch Elementary has prompted her to consider a bill mandating the detectors in schools.

“It appears it is necessary for our children’s safety,” Butler said. “I’m happy to know that all of the kids will be all right, but it could’ve been a much different outcome.”

Staff writers Nancy Badertscher and Marcus Garner and photographer John Spink contributed to this article.

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