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Leak spurs talk of school carbon monoxide monitors

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A gas leak at a Utah elementary school that sickened more than 40 people has prompted concerns about the fact that the state is among many that don't require schools to install carbon monoxide monitors.

Local and state officials said Tuesday they're reconsidering Utah's policy, noting monitors could have prevented levels of exposure that required three people to be airlifted to hospitals after Monday's leak at Montezuma Creek Elementary. The community of Montezuma Creek is on the Navajo reservation, about 15 miles from the Colorado border.

The head of Utah's largest parent advocacy group said Tuesday she was surprised to learn the monitors were not required.

"I think for most citizens in the state, that was a little bit of a wakeup call," said Dawn Davies, president-elect of the Utah PTA.

Utah Fire Marshal Coy Porter said his office likely will make a recommendation on carbon monoxide detectors in schools the weeks ahead.

The level of carbon monoxide accumulated in the school Monday morning indicated the leak began sometime over the weekend, Porter said.

"Had they had them in there," Porter said of the detectors, students and staff "probably would have arrived at school with the alarms going off."

State law requires the monitors only in some residences and institutional buildings where people sleep, such as jails, hospitals and nursing homes.

Symptoms of carbon-monoxide poisoning include headaches, nausea and weakness, although higher exposure levels can lead to unconsciousness and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People who are asleep generally do not detect early symptoms, which can make their exposure fatal.

Utah's school policy is not unusual. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only two states have laws requiring monitors in schools.

The carbon monoxide leak wasn't unique either: Since last November, at least five other schools in the U.S. have reported them.

A leak at an Atlanta elementary school last December sent more than 50 students and adults to hospitals. That school lacked monitors, and Georgia officials considered requiring them in schools. They decided in September to instead recommend schools review buildings and take steps to reduce exposure risks.

Connecticut law requires the monitors in all schools, and Maryland statutes says all newly constructed schools or remodeled schools must have the detectors. In other states, carbon-monoxide monitors are mandated in schools because of building codes and municipal rules.

Porter said some Utah schools do have them installed, typically in mechanical rooms or closets, but that's because of school or district policies.

Carbon monoxide is produced by combustion and can be found in fumes from vehicles, gas ranges and heating systems. At Montezuma Creek Elementary, county officials have pointed to a water heater with a blocked ventilation system as the leak's cause.

Shortly after class started Monday, emergency calls came from the school with reports of students feeling dizzy and sick.

About 300 people were in the building when it was evacuated, San Juan County spokesman Rick Bailey said.

More than 30 students and staff were taken by ambulance to Utah medical facilities, and a third-grade student and two women were airlifted to Colorado hospitals for treatment. By evening, the two adults were still hospitalized. One of them, a female teacher, was flown back to a Utah hospital for treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, Bailey said.

He had no updates on the women Tuesday but said he didn't think any of the other 44 people who were treated was held overnight.

San Juan School District Superintendent Douglas Wright didn't immediately return messages seeking that information. Utah hospital officials said they couldn't provide updates because of health privacy laws.

The school reopened Tuesday, and local and school officials planned to hold meetings to discuss the issue with parents.

Bailey said San Juan County School District officials also are considering requiring the monitors at their schools. District officials didn't return immediately messages from The Associated Press.

Davies said local PTA groups are reaching out to districts throughout the state to see what their polices are and if they're planning changes. At least one district is now working to get monitors, she said.

Rep. Mike Noel, a Kanab Republican whose House district covers the area, said he thought it was "crazy" that the detectors are not required. He said he'll consider legislation if districts and local officials don't take steps on their own.

For now, Noels aid he wants schools to get the alarms installed as soon as possible.

"We're certainly lucky in this one," he said. "If we had lost a kid down there, it would certainly be at the top of the priority list."


Follow Michelle Price at

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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