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  • Nikki James Zellner

Common misconceptions about carbon monoxide risk in schools


After her children experienced carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning at their state-licensed, nationally accredited daycare in February 2020, Nikki James Zellner began to immerse herself in understanding everything she could about CO in schools.


Her first discovery? There were a whole lot of (incorrect) assumptions about CO.


"One of the first things I realized was the lack of basic understanding about carbon monoxide risk. And prior to February 2020, I would put myself in the same group as most people: clueless," Zellner said.


Here's what Zellner says are the most common misconceptions about carbon monoxide awareness, protection and prevention in schools:


• You have to have gas-fired appliances/natural gas in your building to be at risk for carbon monoxide. FALSE.


While gas-fired heating systems and gas-fueled appliances are often culprits, they aren't the only ones that produce CO. Things like propane space heaters, floor polishers, and construction equipment can all create carbon monoxide that can impact occupants of a school building – during or after school hours.


And it's not just things happening inside the building that can cause an issue – because many schools have an air-intake system that brings in outside air to circulate through the school – this means things like idling vehicles, landscaping equipment or sewer/road work being conducted on/near the grounds risk contaminated air being brought it and distributed through the school's ventilation system.


• A standard carbon monoxide detector will alert immediately when it detects carbon monoxide. FALSE.


Standard, residential detectors, often purchasable between $10 - $50, will sound an alarm when they sense a certain amount of carbon monoxide over time. Many of these low-sensitivity detectors are meant to be life-saving detectors only, meaning you could have been exposed to low-doses of deadly CO for several hours before alerting you to the issue.

Standard detectors are life-saving devices only, and should only be used until a stronger, higher sensitivity system can be put into place.


• A standard carbon monoxide detector will alert at any level of carbon monoxide accumulation. FALSE.


The sensitivity level and type of detector or alert system will determine at what accumulation (or part per million/ppm) your sensor will alert at. It's important to identify what areas of your school are at most risk for CO and plan your alert systems and devices accordingly. Because low-doses of CO over longer periods of time can have just as health-wrecking effects as higher doses of CO in shorter periods of time – it's critically important to invest in highly-sensitive integrated systems when possible.


• A carbon monoxide detector will automatically alert emergency services when it detects carbon monoxide. FALSE.


It takes a system-connected, monitored and hard-wired detection system, that is working properly, to auto-alert emergency services that there is an issue in your building. Due to the age of some of the school buildings in Virginia, this type of detection system is not always possible.


•You assume leadership is taking the proper steps to protect you from carbon monoxide in school, or that they're aware of the steps they should be taking to address it. FALSE.


Reviewing the emergency plans of several Virginia schools revealed there is no mention of Carbon Monoxide-specific emergency drills, or training, taking place. Many emergency plans are built around the laws enacted by the legislature that relate to Virginia schools. With no law mandating CO Protection in schools in Virginia, this means many emergency plans are filing this under "will get to this when they make me." Use our "Understanding Carbon Monoxide Risk In Our School" download under the Take Action tab to get an understanding of how prepared you and your school are for a CO-exposure incident.



This is just a short list of the misconceptions Zellner discovered. Stay tuned for more!


What questions do you have about CO in schools? Use the chat bubble or comments feature and ask away.



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