With No Warning

Our View: Odorless Carbon Monoxide Gas Can Be Deadly

Balt. County Should Require All Rental Units To Install Detectors, And It Should Study Reported Alarms For Patterns

November 17, 2009

Carbon monoxide poisoning killed three members of the Wiley family in July 2005 after the colorless, odorless gas built up to astronomical levels in their Eastern Baltimore County rental home in the Cove Village complex, apparently as a result of faulty installation of the unit's furnace or other appliances. It's not so surprising, then, that immediately after Cove Village management installed carbon monoxide detectors in all the other homes in the complex that firefighters got a string of false alarms from nervous residents.

What's harder to figure is that more than four years later, after Sawyer Realty Holdings LLC, the College Park-based company that owns the complex, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to correct problems in the homes, the number of elevated carbon monoxide readings there - including the most serious kind, in which the concentration of gas can be lethal - is higher than ever in 2009. Sun reporters Robert Little and Nick Madigan reported in Sunday's edition that county officials have found elevated CO levels 39 times so far this year, up from 20 last year. In fact, in the years since the Wileys' deaths, the number of false alarms has steadily dropped and the number excessive of potentially lethal readings has been on the rise.

According to the investigation by Messrs. Little and Madigan, Sawyer officials have completed complex-wide improvements to address most, though not all, of the problems that likely contributed to the Wileys' deaths, and the company deserves credit for that. But its efforts belie its initial unwillingness to act sooner on many of the problems with the installation and venting of furnaces and hot water heaters that had been discovered as early as 2005. A consultant hired by attorneys for the Wiley family as part of a lawsuit that Sawyer settled out of court in 2007 found problems with the air intake and exhaust systems in many of the units (though, curiously, not in the model unit). The company has acted defensively on this point, saying it won't use findings by plaintiffs in a lawsuit as a roadmap for its conduct. But if it had done so in 2005, when it was first briefed on the problems, how many hospitalizations, evacuations and calls to the fire department could have been avoided?

County officials, too, could have acted sooner, and they need to think carefully about what they did and did not detect about the problems in Cove Village. This summer, county permit officials became fed up with the persistent problems at Cove Village and threatened to shut down the entire complex. A subsequent sweep of the rental homes by county officials and Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. technicians found 20 of this year's 39 elevated readings, begging the question of how many elevated levels were still going unreported. Sawyer has made more improvements and replaced more appliances since then, but at least two elevated readings have been made since the summer, including one last week. Permits and Development Manager Timothy Kotroco acknowledged that the county could have acted sooner if it had studied the records of carbon monoxide alarms more closely.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. introduced legislation at Monday's County Council meeting to require carbon monoxide detectors in every rental property in Baltimore County. Given the danger posed by buildups of the gas, it makes just as much sense as requiring smoke alarms, perhaps even more so given that the gas may not be apparent to residents until it's too late.

County officials contemplated proposing a requirement that all residences, including owner-occupied homes, install the devices. But they decided to limit it to rental properties, on the grounds that renters have an explanation that their landlords would provide them with a safe dwelling but that owners traditionally shoulder those responsibilities on their own. The distinction doesn't make much sense; we don't only require seat belts in rental cars. For that matter, state law requires smoke alarms in all dwelling units, whether owner-occupied or rentals. At the very least, the council should extend the requirement to include newly constructed homes. Given the state's role in mandating smoke alarms, the General Assembly should consider a state-wide requirement when it reconvenes in January.

If thousands of new detectors are going to be installed, the county needs to develop a robust system for tracking the alarms and looking for patterns. Fire officials say the number of carbon monoxide calls countywide has been on the rise in recent years, and in some cases, firefighters found potentially lethal levels of the gas. The county needs to make sure it can spot problems before they turn deadly.

Readers respond

If it is such a good idea then why aren't the detectors required in all residences. I have one in my home. Has every CO call been in a rental unit?

Rcooper

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