Nikki James Zellner
Who's culpable in Allentown?
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
Another carbon monoxide poisoning incident in a school – this time catching national media's attention because of the events that unfolded at the Happy Smiles Learning Center in Allentown, PA on October 11, 2022.
The biggest question people are having: why weren't carbon monoxide alarms or detectors required at the daycare? Who's to blame? Some will say lawmakers. Some will say the daycare director. Some will say the parents for not knowing what they were sending their kids into.
But I tell you what, folks. The answer has a lot more layers than people realize.
Here's some of the quotes and reporting that caught my eye during the Allentown incident:
The daycare's director believed that the smoke detector used for her building was also a carbon monoxide detector, too.
The City of Allentown's CO detection requirements hadn't been "enforced" yet – even though requirements for CO detection in that city specifically were going to be required. Allentown was going over and above Pennsylvania's state requirements – which did not include requiring installation of CO detection in daycares.
State lawmakers didn't pass the CO bill that was being heard in legislation in time –and it will have to be re-introduced in the next legislative session.
The daycare workers called 9-1-1 but reported the incident as a medical call – and did not evacuate the building. This exposed children and staff members for a longer duration to the poisonous gas.
The event was labeled a 'Mass Casualty Level 1' event – meaning they didn't have enough local resources to accommodate the quantity of injuries. Local facilities couldn't care for those that needed the most help – and every Allentown ambulance was in use.
There has always been a fuel-fired heating system in that building – so there has always been a risk for a carbon monoxide exposure to take place – in a building caring for kids. At any point did an inspector communicate to the owner how dangerous it is to operate that system in the presence of children/staff without a working detector on site (even if not required).
Allentown was a tragedy – that could have been avoided at many points, by many people.
There is not one person or one group to blame, as much as we want there to be.
As a mother of carbon monoxide poisoning survivors who has now spent 2+ years researching all things carbon monoxide in schools and daycares, I believe that CO detection needs to be required in every school and daycare, regardless of year built, regardless of systems installed.
But it's up to us to be educated, informed and involved to make that happen.
We can either install carbon monoxide alarms and detection systems, or the adults in daycares and schools will need to be the alarms instead – and they can’t do that if they're also unconscious or impaired by poison.
The only prevention of CO poisoning is having working alarms and detectors – if we don’t do this as a nation, we’re going to continue to see children, teachers and community members wheeled out on gurneys, and transported via ambulance to hospitals in their region.
WHY THIS MATTERS – Let’s look at the FACTS:
Children are at higher risk than healthy adults – they can’t communicate illness, they can’t remove themselves safety from the building without an unimpaired adult, breathe at a faster rate and are in a critical stage of growth and development with their systems.
Majority of teachers/faculty have ZERO training on CO awareness or CO exposure training in a property outside of the home (schools, daycares, assembly areas) but would be relied on to be the first line of defense in being able to recognize issues in their own classrooms or caregiving areas. Ask any caregiver or teacher – they're already underwater when it comes to the amount of things they're responsible for over and above teaching.
Due to current state laws and non-uniform building code, a majority of US schools and daycares are not required to have carbon monoxide detection on site. Trying to identify what states, and what regions or municipalities in those states, requires a runaround of epic proportions. Good luck to the layman person trying to find this out on their own, because the codes, the laws – they're always changing.
Schools/daycare CO events will have a higher number of injured parties – the average injured in a residential poisoning is 1-3 people per incident, the average # injuries in schools/daycares receiving medical care, based on our research, is 27. So you have to think about how that impacts first responders, hospitals, and availability of resources to care for those injured.
And, to give you a rebuttal to ‘the building is all electric' defense: You don’t need a fuel-fired system to have a CO exposure – just download our Case Study to see that 47% of the incidents we uncovered were not caused by a fuel-fired installed appliance. Propane floor cleaners, blocked ventilation, portable generators and power tools – can all create a CO situation.
Please use the resources on our site to educate yourself about the modern risk of CO in schools, and download the materials you need to engage in dialogue with schools and daycares in your own community.
Because the reality is this – it's going to be up to us. Why?
Building codes can't change overnight. And they take even longer to be enforced. They will continue to be different from state to state, from city to city.
State and city regulations are hard to pass. And elected officials need to know there is broad support for a bill on both sides of the aisle to get it through. Many times add-ons to language over and above carbon monoxide detection and safety will prevent a piece of legislation from getting through.
Administrators, teachers, caregivers – there's a lot on their plates today. And today, they just aren't as knowledgable about the danger and prevention as they need to be. Most can't answer with total confidence how and where their buildings have risk, and where/what kind of detection is needed.
Parents need to get involved in the conversation, and be prepared to help with prevention, until the points above can be addressed. Grab an alarm for your child's classroom, make sure your child (if of age) is aware of the danger and signs of CO.