Carbon monoxide is often called the “silent killer.” Inhaling too much of the colorless and odorless gas can cause headaches, nausea, and in severe cases, death.
While most states require carbon monoxide detectors in residential buildings, less than a quarter of states have laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in school buildings, according to data from the Environmental Law Institute, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and members of the National Council on School Facilities.
Even in those states that have requirements, the law sometimes only applies to newly built school buildings—and the vast majority of schools are not new, according to experts who spoke with Education Week.
That means that potentially thousands of school buildings don’t have detectors.
There are no organizations that record how many carbon monoxide leaks happen in schools, experts said. But while these incidents appear to be rare, there were several reported cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in schools and day-care centers in 2022. For example, in October, six students and two adults were taken to a hospital for evaluation after a carbon monoxide leak was detected in a Kansas City, Mo., elementary school.
“This exposure often does not end up causing a large number of deaths, but it shouldn’t need that in order for anybody to take steps to address it anyway,” said Jerry Roseman, the director of environmental science and occupational safety and health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
How does carbon monoxide leak in school buildings?
In schools, carbon monoxide could leak from worn or poorly maintained boilers or furnaces, or a malfunctioning flue (a duct or pipe to transport exhaust gas to the outdoors). It could also come from gas stoves in the cafeteria or in science or culinary arts classrooms. Exhaust from idling cars that enter school windows or doors can also be a source of carbon monoxide.
Why do many schools lack carbon monoxide detectors?
Schools that don’t have carbon monoxide detectors are most likely not required by state or local government to have those monitoring systems in place.
For example, Andrew O’Leary, the assistant superintendent of finance and operations for the New Bedford Public Schools in Massachusetts, said his district doesn’t currently have “an approach to carbon monoxide detection, and nor do the regulatory requirements we adhere to.”
But the district is reviewing “wearable detector options for custodial staff to ensure they can be deployed next school year.”
Regulations on carbon monoxide detectors are usually written into state building codes and are not enforced by departments of education. Some states—such as Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, and Missouri—leave it up to local governments to set those regulations.
More states are updating their building codes to require detectors in new and existing school buildings and now at least 10 do so, according to the Environmental Law Institute. In 2018, only five states had those requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
One reason why carbon monoxide detectors are frequently required in homes but not in schools could be that homes are smaller, said Hannah Carter, a school district environmental health project manager for nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools. A leak in the boiler in the basement of a house will quickly travel throughout the whole house. In a school, the boiler room is usually out of the way and has its own exhaust system.
“Ideally, if there was a leak, it would just get exhausted out and it’s not going to impact much of the school at all,” Carter said. “We know that’s not the case. There are definitely leaks that affect kids. Perhaps, that’s a reason for the lack of urgency, the feeling like it’s not a big deal. It’s not like there’s a boiler in every classroom.”
What can schools do to prevent carbon monoxide leaks?
The approaches for preventing carbon monoxide leaks are often simple and inexpensive, according to experts.
Carbon monoxide monitoring equipment is not expensive, Roseman said. “It’s definitely not nothing, but it’s hundreds of dollars—maybe $1,000—per school, not millions of dollars.”
For example, in a school district the size of Philadelphia, which has a budget of more than $3 billion, spending $1,000 per school for carbon monoxide monitoring “to save one life seems like it’s pretty cheap,” he said.
As long as they’re installed in the right places—in areas with fuel-burning sources—the detectors will help prevent any severe cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. Schools will also need to maintain those detectors and ensure they have people who can fix any faulty systems, Roseman said.
District leaders can also ensure the school’s furnace or other fuel-burning sources are inspected regularly, said Claire Barnett, executive director for the Healthy Schools Network, a nonprofit that advocates for healthy school environments. Only 16 states and the District of Columbia require safety audits of school facilities, according to an analysis from the Education Commission of the States.
“The cost of monitoring is really like nothing, and the cost of missing something is astounding,” Roseman said.
Beyond health, why does this issue matter?
The lack of regulations on carbon monoxide detectors in school buildings is part of the bigger problem of aging school infrastructure, experts said.
Thousands of school buildings are years or decades behind on repairs and upgrades, according to an Education Week analysis. Millions of students are learning in what facilities experts say are unsafe buildings.
Aside from a handful of small grant programs, the federal government hasn’t invested in school infrastructure in a major way since 1935. And states invest little in school building improvements, leaving local governments to foot most of the bill.
“The big takeaway is that each of these individual situations and conditions is one that is shameful that it exists in our schools,” Roseman said. “[Carbon monoxide] might not be the worst of them. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s asbestos. Maybe it’s lead in paint. Maybe PCBs. Lack of heat. It goes on and on.
“How can our schools look like this? They are conditions that are known to exist in buildings that we put our children in every day. That can only happen and only does happen because people don’t know about all of these risks.”