Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on February 8, 2021.

'General Negligence'

A new Fire Protection Research Foundation Report highlights the nation's enduring carbon monoxide problem


Many states in the US have no rules requiring the use of carbon monoxide (CO) detectors, even in hotels, assembly occupancies, and other public spaces.

That’s a key finding in a new report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF). The report also identified a variety of root causes for the problem, including states that don’t adopt statewide codes, that adopt older editions of codes that don’t require CO detection, or that permit local jurisdictions to edit out CO-related language.

The report, published in February, comes on the heels of a widely publicized carbon monoxide incident in Colorado. Two weeks before Christmas, Shelby and Cody Allen (top photograph) were found dead on the third floor of their home in Central City, near Denver. Shelby, 27, and Cody, 29, both worked as firefighters in Central City. A coroner ruled that the couple had died from CO poisoning.

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a gas known as the silent killer. If breathed in high enough concentrations, it reduces a person’s ability to absorb oxygen, eventually leading to a loss of consciousness and death, similar to suffocation. Since CO is colorless and odorless, it’s nearly impossible to detect without an air monitor triggering an alarm. Even though this technology has been proven to detect CO and alert residents to take action, such alarms are not required in much of the country, including hotel rooms.

Incidents like the Colorado deaths and thousands of others like them have prompted advocates in recent years to call for an increase in regulation around CO monitoring. Their efforts have gained some momentum. The 2021 editions of both NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, included additional CO detection requirements for existing hotels and dormitories. However, these generally apply only to buildings with attached garages, rooms containing fuel-burning appliances, and spaces served by fuel-burning HVAC systems. Information on the installation of CO detection and warning equipment is included in NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®.

Advocates say much more still needs to be done. To get a better sense of the problem and whether stricter code language is warranted, the FPRF last year undertook a project called “Carbon Monoxide Detection and Alarm Requirements: Literature Review” to compile a list of incidents and existing CO requirements across the US. The report noted that deaths from CO seem to be occurring in some places where NFPA codes do not currently require detection—for instance, in hotel rooms that don’t contain fuel-burning appliances, but where duct leaks can still allow entry of the deadly gas.

Aside from regulation, the biggest hurdle to lowering the CO death rate is a lack of information, both for the public and policymakers, the report found. “While fire-related incidents are well documented, data collection on CO poisoning incidents is limited,” the report said, making it difficult to substantiate regulatory changes. Education and a general awareness among the public about the dangers of CO is also severely lacking, it said.

The dearth of critical data, a lack of consistent regulation, and the fact that these preventable CO poisoning deaths have persisted relatively unchanged for decades “demonstrates … the general negligence to the problem,” the report concludes.

While statistics are difficult to obtain, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 400 people die each year from CO poisoning, and another 50,000 are hospitalized. Those numbers have remained relatively consistent over the past two decades, according to NFPA reports.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top photograph:Gilpin County Sheriff's Office