One day before the fifteen member Senate Committee on Education and Health was scheduled to vote on whether or not HB1823 would advance to the Senate floor, an Annandale, Va middle school was evacuated due to carbon monoxide exposure.
HB1823 – a bill introduced by Delegate Alex Askew – would require every school and daycare in the Commonwealth to have at least one carbon monoxide detector on site.
Poe Middle School in Annandale was one of the lucky ones.
According to the official Fairfax Fire and Rescue Incident Report, obtained through a FOIA request, emergency services were dispatched to Poe Middle School and upon arrival found the building had already been evacuated.
The school's hardwired, integrated alarm panel showed CO detector activation – with no specific location noted. This means, they had to start searching for the source.
Their first stop: the boiler room, the likeliest suspect.
But the meters popped back a 0 reading.
Near the front entrance, a 3 ppm reading.
In the cafeteria, a 10 ppm reading.
As the firefighters made their way to the back hall and gym area, the sensors started to rise rapidly – initial readings in that area according to the 4-gas meters used by emergency personnel: 150 - 375 ppm.
Carbon monoxide, the deadly, odorless, colorless and tasteless gas, is measured in parts per million (ppm).
The WHO's recommended limits for CO exposure before things really go sideways:
• 9-10 ppm for mo more than 8 hours
• 25-35 ppm for no more than 1 hour
• 90-100 ppm for no longer than 15 minutes
During an incident where your exposed to CO at 99 ppm or less for a short period of time, the average adult is experiencing flu-like symptoms like nausea, headaches, fatigue or drowsiness. Over 100 ppm the average adult is experiencing severe symptoms such as confusion, intense headaches. And in the 300-400ppm range, like in the back hall and gym of Poe Middle School, exposure here can lead to brain damage, coma and death.
According to the incident report, the principal of Poe Middle said they followed evacuation procedures, but he wasn't sure if everyone was out of the building. Once they realized the severity of the issue, upon recommendation from emergency services, children and teachers were given buses to warm up in – as the evacuation took them outside in freezing temperatures.
If the school's evacuation plan had taken them to the gym, they would have been exposed to some of the highest, life-threatening CO concentration in the school.
The eventual source of the CO issue was found: a rooftop HVAC unit over the gym. Outside the building. Seeping CO inside the gym, through the back halls, and into other areas throughout the school building. The specific cause of the CO leak from the HVAC unit wasn't identified in the report.
I say Poe Middle School was lucky. Because they were. But they were also prepared.
They had an alarm installed – a hardwired one, in fact, that could alert authorities to an issue in the building, even if those in the building were unaware of an issue in the first place.
They had an evacuation plan that took them outside of the school, even in sub-freezing temps, versus in a common gathering space like the gym.
No one was injured, but that shouldn't be the headline.
The headline should be: here's your sign.
Virginia Senators – it's up to you. Require Carbon Monoxide Detection in Virginia schools and daycares.
About the author: Nikki James Zellner is a mom, business owner and military spouse in Virginia. She began her advocacy efforts for carbon monoxide and awareness in schools after her two children were poisoned by CO at their daycare in Virginia Beach in February 2020. She has since founded the website: SaferSchoolsInVirginia.com to educate and raise awareness for parents, staff members, educators, administrators and legislators in Virginia.