By Gary Stoller and WAKEUP CALL
New international building and fire codes that will be published this summer may provide hotel guests less protection from deadly carbon monoxide.
The 2015 codes eliminate a 2012 requirement that required a CO alarm in each guest room or a detection system in all common areas, according to Michael O’Brian, a member of an International Code Council committee that recommended the new codes.
The codes are not binding on states and municipalities, but most adopt them or modified versions within six years after they are published, he says.
Eleven states have laws requiring CO alarms in hotels, but no state requires them in each hotel room or common area, says Doug Farquhar of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In April, Long Island’s Nassau County enacted a law that requires CO alarms within 15 feet of each hotel guest room, says Michael Uttaro, the county’s assistant chief fire marshal. The law was passed after one person died and 27 others were treated at a hospital in February after a CO leak at a Legal Sea Foods in Huntington Station, N.Y.
Medical experts say an alarm in each hotel room, or a detector in hallways, could save lives or injuries from CO poisoning by alerting guests to elevated CO levels and the need to evacuate.
Hotel officials say CO incidents in hotels are rare and other CO code requirements are sufficient, so requiring alarms for each guest room or detectors throughout a hotel is unnecessary and costly.
The 2015 codes require hotels to install CO alarms near a furnace, water heater or other fuel-burning devices that could malfunction and emit CO gas.
Carbon monoxide — often called “the silent killer” — is a colorless, odorless and tasteless toxic gas produced by incomplete combustion in such devices.
O’Brian says the code committee recognized the cost of installing and maintaining CO alarms or detectors throughout each hotel and decided hotel occupants would have sufficient protection by requiring such devices only near fuel-burning appliances.
Equipping each room with an alarm could cost the hotel industry $250 million, and alarms must be replaced about every five years, according to Tom Daly, a consultant for the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
Medical experts cite past incidents of CO poisoning at hotels and say CO detectors near fuel-burning appliances do not adequately protect guests and workers in guest rooms or other hotel areas.
Besides CO sources within a hotel, other sources — such as construction work outside — could cause CO to seep into a guest room, they say.
“CO is a very real danger, and CO alarms should be in hotel rooms,” says Stephen Thom, a University of Maryland professor of emergency medicine and a CO specialist. “CO incidents happen in every major city regularly, and people only pay attention to the need for CO detectors when there is a tragedy.”
About 98% of CO-related fatalities occur in homes, campers and tents, the hotel association says.
The International Code Council committee that established the 2015 codes for hotels was comprised of fire officials, building officials, scientists and engineers, the association says.
The committee determined locations at a hotel that have “minimal risk” of CO leaks and recommended alarms or detectors in only those places, the association says. “Guestrooms are not required to have detectors, because the source is almost never in the hotel room itself, but in a space with a fuel-fired appliance.”
There are no complete statistics on how many people are treated or die from CO poisoning in hotels or other dwellings.
A USA TODAY analysis last year that reviewed more than 1,000 news accounts found 30 instances from 2010 through early November 2012 of fire and other public-safety officials finding high levels of CO in hotels. More than 1,300 people were evacuated in the incidents.
Last month, a South Carolina mother, Jeannie Williams, whose son was killed by CO in a hotel room, started with her family a foundation that aims to get CO detectors in every home and hotel room.
Williams and her 11-year-old son, Jeffrey, were overcome by CO in their room at the Blue Ridge Plaza Best Western Hotel in Boone, N.C., in June 2013. Jeffrey died from CO gas poisoning.
Investigators concluded that the hotel pool heater’s exhaust pipe was damaged and leaking lethal levels of CO. They also found that an elderly couple died in the room a few weeks before and had lethal amounts of CO in their blood.
Jeannie Williams tells USA TODAY it is very difficult to talk about what happened, but she says hotels cannot “guarantee” their rooms “will be airtight” and should have CO alarms in them.
In February, 20 people may have been poisoned from a CO leak at the Westin Baltimore Washington International Airport, local fire officials said. Eight workers and a guest were taken to a hospital.
Among other incidents, five teenagers celebrating a birthday were killed in a guest room at the Hotel Presidente in Hialeah, Fla., in December 2010 after they left a car running in the motel’s garage near their room.
Neil Hampson, a Seattle doctor and CO expert, says a device to detect CO is needed in every hotel room, and he has firsthand knowledge.
He carries a CO alarm, and it sounded in his room at a lodge in Alaska in 2009. He says he went to the basement and turned off the gas to the water heater to reduce high CO levels.
A study he published last year in The Journal of the American Medical Associationshowed that CO can pass through drywall. Even dwellings “without internal CO sources” may need CO alarms, the study says.
“Most morbidity and mortality from CO poisoning is believed to be preventable through public education and CO alarm use,” the study says.
Robert Rosenthal, a doctor at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, says he has treated hotel guests for CO poisoning and it’s “a relatively small expense” to equip a hotel room with a CO alarm.
“Every hotel room probably has been upgraded to a flat-screen TV in the last five years,” Rosenthal says. “If a CO alarm saves even one life, I would be in favor of seeing more of them in hotels.”