CO leak causes detector reevaluation

Anya Kelley, Staff Writer

A carbon monoxide leak at a UW-Milwaukee residence hall has caused Wisconsin state colleges to rethink whether carbon monoxide detectors should be placed in student housing.

On Feb. 28, 400 UWM students were evacuated and 17 were hospitalized after a carbon monoxide (CO) leak at Cambridge Commons residence hall reached dangerously high levels in excess of 190 parts per million (ppm), according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Environmental Protection Agency states that average levels in homes without gas stoves vary from 0.5 to 5 ppm. In the week following the incident, detectors were installed in all of the UW-Milwaukee dorms.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
After a recent leak of carbon monoxide at UW-Milwaukee, some schools are thinking of putting in
detectors of their own.

CO is a colorless, odorless gas. It is found in fumes produced when fuel in cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges and furnaces is burned. CO can build up indoors when proper ventilation is not available, poisoning people and animals that breathe it in. In fact, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning each year with another 24,000 hospitalized.

UWM stated the leak came from a steam boiler in the dormitory’s basement. In Wisconsin, there is no law requiring CO detectors in resident halls and there were none installed in the hall at the time.

Peggy Breister, chief communications officer at UW Oshkosh, said CO detectors are also not located in residence halls at UWO.

“All UW Oshkosh residence halls are heated by steam, which does not produce CO and therefore CO detectors are not required,” Breister said.

“Most UW system residential buildings are heated via steam and do not include fuel-burning appliances for heating purposes,” said Mark Pitsch, director of media relations for the UW system. “They would not be required under [current] code to have detectors unless there is a location with a fuel-burning appliance.”

Pitsch said earlier this month that chancellors at each UW campus have been told to review their dorms and ensure that they “comply with all applicable codes and expand detector usage to improve student safety beyond state and local requirements.”

Pitsch told The Advance-Titan, “The UW system has engaged chancellors – who, under Board of Regents policy, are responsible for meeting health and safety requirements – to ensure that carbon monoxide detectors are installed and utilized to protect the health and safety of our students.”
Symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, vomiting and other flu-like symptoms. The biggest tell-tale sign you have CO poisoning is confusion.

Breathing in too much CO can cause unconsciousness and in the worst-case scenario, death.
Those who are asleep and breathing in CO are at a much higher risk of death than someone who is awake.