Essex Complex's Stoves Faulty

Carbon Monoxide Leaks At Cove Village Hospitalize 8 In Week

July 01, 2009|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,brent.jones@baltsun.com

Managers of an Essex townhouse community troubled by carbon monoxide leaks say the complex should be rid of the dangerous gas by week's end, after stoves are adjusted.

Baltimore County officials and firefighters set up a temporary command center at the Cove Village complex Tuesday, and workers will spend two days investigating what they say are faulty stoves in several of the 299 units. Officials say the management company has agreed to replace gas stoves with electric models over time.

Carbon monoxide poisoning sent three residents to the hospital on Sunday; five others were treated in Maryland Shock Trauma Center's hyperbaric chamber last week. In July 2005, three people at the complex died of gas poisoning.

The security director for Sawyer Realty Holding LLC, a College Park-based company that owns the complex, said the company plans to meet tonight with tenants.

"The one thing we've said was that we shared the residents' frustrations," said Chris Davis, the security director.

With no federal or state regulations governing carbon monoxide levels, county officials say there is little for them to do other than respond to the steady flow of exposure calls, which peak during the summer and winter months.

Two years ago, state lawmakers mandated alarms for the odorless gas in all newly constructed public housing buildings. But the law does not address buildings built before 2008, or sanction owners of complexes that have frequent carbon monoxide calls. The owners of Essex Cove, built in the 1970s, installed gas alarms after the 2005 deaths of a 48-year-old man and his two teenage stepdaughters.

Timothy M. Kotroco, director of the county's Department of Permits and Development Management, said Cove Village produces the greatest number of gas incidents. In a one-month span last year, the Fire Department was called to the complex on 20 occasions in response to carbon monoxide alarms. But Kotroco said there is little his agency can do to punish the owners.

"Every time something flares up, they fix it immediately," he said. "It's not like we have ongoing code problems. And it's not like I can bring them into court."

Officials from Kotroco's department, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and the county Fire Department met with the owner of the complex Tuesday. Kotroco said stoves emitting high amounts of the deadly gas - formed when natural gas burns incompletely or appliances are not properly vented - will be readjusted.

Denise Stemple, a 21-year-resident who said she was a close friend of the man who died, said the latest rounds of gas scares have convinced her that she needs to leave.

"We need more maintenance men," Stemple said. "They do a lot but they need to do more. I'm scared to death. I have two children and a husband, and I'm concerned. It's time for me to move on."

Brittany Longbottom lives on the same block of High Seas Court as Stemple and said that news of the repeated calls "affects our friends and family, because then they start calling to make sure we're all right. I had my mama calling after what happened Sunday night."

Carbon monoxide remains one of the leading causes of accidental deaths in the United States. At low doses, fatigue and chest pain in people with heart disease can occur. At higher concentrations, people may experience impaired vision and coordination, headaches, dizziness, confusion and nausea.

State Del. Ben Barnes, a Prince George's County Democrat and a sponsor of the alarm requirement for new construction, said the measure was a good first step but that "all dwellings need to be equipped, much like they are with smoke detectors. It's just common sense."

Observers say drafting legislation punishing repeat offenders may be problematic. Carbon monoxide deaths are relatively rare, and the issue has not gained much national traction.

David G. Penney, a physiology professor at Wayne State University in Ohio and author of three books on the dangers of carbon monoxide, said it generally is up to local public health departments or fire departments to police repeat violators.

Several states have adopted mandatory detector laws, he said, but tenants who suffered from inhalation could also seek legal remedies against landlords.

"Of course, somebody can take them to court and sue them," Penney said. "These are all possibilities."

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