Classroom carbon monoxide: Detectors are required, so why aren’t they in every school?

Apr 8, 2024, 10:00 PM | Updated: Apr 9, 2024, 3:43 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – The 911 calls came from two Utah schools more than 200 miles and almost three months apart over the winter, but the emergencies were the same.

Students and employees were sick to their stomachs and reporting headaches at American Preparatory Academy’s day care in Draper in November, and later at Cedar City’s Canyon View Middle School in January. Dozens were sent to hospitals for treatment for exposure to carbon monoxide.

After a similar emergency in San Juan County 10 years earlier, the KSL Investigators found very few Utah schools had carbon monoxide detection systems in place. In 2014, Utah lawmakers mandated systems be installed in the state’s private, public and charter schools.

Now, a decade later, our team found several schools still aren’t equipped.

And even at some that have long had them in place, kids are getting sick anyway from the odorless, colorless gas.

Backpacks and coats line the wall at American Preparatory Academy’s day care in Draper. Kids there were treated for exposure to carbon monoxide in November. (KSL TV)

A decadelong push

After the two leaks this winter, KSL surveyed every school district in Utah. Of the 816 public schools statewide that responded to our survey, just 11 are without detectors. But the true number could be higher, because 61 schools didn’t answer our questions.

Coming into compliance with the state mandate isn’t as simple as picking up a standalone detector at a hardware store. Utah requires an interconnected system so that when one sensor goes off, administrators are alerted and can take quick action to move students to a safer part of the building or outside.

Some of Utah’s school districts, including rural ones with tight budgets, are still scraping together the money to outfit their buildings, State Fire Marshal Ted Black noted. The state didn’t set a deadline for the upgrades or pick up the tab, which can start at several thousand dollars and reach the tens of thousands.

“I don’t believe that anyone is dragging their feet on purpose,” Black said. “They want to do the right thing, and I believe they will.”

Of the 11 schools that aren’t equipped, six are in the Granite School District, three in Tintic, one in Tooele and one in Wayne.

All told KSL they’re slated to get them within the next year and a half, except for Eureka Elementary. Tintic School District said that school relies on electric heat and isn’t required to make the upgrade.

Ben Horsley with the Granite School District said it’s a matter of using limited funding to prioritize getting detectors where they’re most needed, like in schools with the oldest heating systems that are more likely to malfunction.

Other large districts like Alpine and Jordan told KSL they’re fully in compliance.

In the Weber School District, a quarter of schools do not have integrated systems, but the district has installed standalone monitors in critical areas of those schools. Rural San Juan County – where a 2013 leak at Montezuma Creek Elementary sickened dozens and prompted the state requirement – is fully equipped.

So were the two schools where students got sick in the last year, showing even buildings that have checked the right boxes can still face problems.

Does your child’s school have a carbon monoxide detection system? KSL surveyed every Utah school district to find out.

School construction and carbon monoxide

In January, when construction crews were pouring concrete floors at Canyon View Middle School in Cedar City, carbon monoxide from the gas-powered equipment crept into neighboring classrooms, said Hunter Shaheen, the Iron County School District’s director of facilities management.

“The construction company had taken numerous precautions with fans, with ventilation,” Shaheen told KSL. The school’s detection system didn’t go off, but a sensor in the construction zone alerted, Shaheen said. About two dozen students were treated at a hospital.

Hunter Shaheen with the Iron County School District points to classrooms under construction at Canyon View Middle School in Cedar City. Fumes from gas-powered equipment there sickened students in January. (Josh Szymanik, KSL TV)

To be extra safe, the school district no longer allows gas-powered equipment to be used inside during the school day, said Shauna Lund, the school district’s spokesperson.

“We just want to do what we need to do so the parents feel like, ‘Hey, I can send my kid to school for eight hours, and they are going to be safe,’” Lund said.

The source of the carbon monoxide exposure in Cedar City was a surprise to Black, the state fire marshal. Now his office is emphasizing to schools that construction can pose a danger.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Black said. “The silly thing to do would be to not act on that awareness.”

New awareness also inspired action at the Draper day care for kids of employees at American Preparatory Academy, said Tim Evancich, director of operations for the charter school with several Utah campuses.

A truck with an industrial power washer – parked about 150 feet from the day care – allowed the odorless, colorless gas to slip inside the building, Evancich said.

“It is a learning experience,” he said. “You need to be very cautious about where that exhaust is directed.”

Utah didn’t require daycares to install detectors until last July, when the state updated its fire code, said Draper’s fire marshal, Don Buckley. And while American Preparatory complied, a sensor in another part of the building didn’t alert the day care to the dangerous fumes before people got sick.

“Even before the fire marshals left on the day of the event, we had scoured up all of the plug-in type CO detectors we could find, and now virtually every room in the building has one,” Evancich said.

The school leases the space and is working with its landlord to install an upgraded system for the entire building, he added. He noted that apart from the day care building, each American Preparatory school has a detection system in place.

Keeping schools safe

Getting every school to comply with the state mandate is just the beginning. Black, the state fire marshal, said these detectors have a shelf life of six to 10 years.

His team of eight inspectors aims to check on them in each school once a year, but Black said it is even more important to prevent leaks in the first place.

Boilers, furnaces, and other sources of carbon monoxide can malfunction easily if they aren’t maintained properly by someone who’s qualified to do the job, Black said.

His message for schools is simple: “Maintain your systems,” he said.

Wally Taylor, whose granddaughter attends Canyon View Middle School in Cedar City, said that luckily, the girl didn’t show any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning in January.

Taylor said the ordeal shows it’s important for communities to invest in student safety as they try to accommodate growing numbers of students.

“We’re going to have to pass some bonds to get newer schools and things like that taken care of,” Taylor said.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Classroom carbon monoxide: Detectors are required, so why aren’t they in every school?