Sustained Outrage

Why doesn’t W.Va. require CO alarms in hotels?

Emergency vehicles are parked in front of the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in South Charleston, W.V., Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012 . One guest was found dead and at least four others were sickened, apparently from carbon monoxide poisoning. A natural gas heating unit on a pool at the hotel caused a carbon monoxide leak Tuesday, fire officials said. (AP Photo/The Charleston Gazette,Kenny Kemp)

In the wake of the preventable death of construction worker William J. Moran, 44, of Rhode Island, yesterday in a carbon monoxide leak at the Holiday Inn Express and Suites out on Corridor G, the Daily Mail reports this morning that South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens wants his city to begin requiring all hotels in their jurisdiction to install life-saving CO alarms.

The bigger question, though, is why Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the West Virginia Legislature don’t just pass a simple law that mandates all hotels in our state install these life-saving devices.

Nationally, smoke alarms have been required in hotels since 1990. But that statute does not mandate carbon monoxide detectors or alarms.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 25 states have laws that mandate carbon monoxide detectors in residential buildings.  In West Virginia, such a statute was passed in 1998, after lobbying from 5th graders whose teacher nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning (subscription required). But a look at the NCSL’s list indicates far fewer states acting to require CO units in hotels — Michigan, New Jersey and Vermont list hotels specifically.

In one widely quoted article from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (I saw it in this New York Times piece and forwarded it to the Gazette’s Lori Kersey, who quoted it in today’s paper), Dr. Lindell K. Weaver of the University of Utah explained the importance of the issue:

Between 1989 and 2004, 68 incidents of CO poisoning occurring at hotels, motels, and resorts were identified, resulting in 772 accidentally poisoned: 711 guests, 41 employees or owners, and 20 rescue personnel. Of those poisoned, 27 died.

Interestingly, Dr. Weaver noted:

Poisoning has occurred at hotels of all classes, including those described as “luxury” hotels.

Dr. Weaver wrote that Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Minnesota have also required carbon monoxide detectors in hotels. But in a survey of more than 100 chain hotel properties, Weaver found that only 11 percent had installed the devices. Dr. Weaver concluded:

Despite evidence of efficacy, CO alarms have not been installed widely by the lodging industry, even at properties where guests and employees have been injured by CO.

Hotel fires are highly publicized, whereas CO poisoning is less dramatic. Therefore, the impetus for national legislation mandating CO alarms in guest rooms is lessobvious. Nevertheless, a single incident can result in multiple fatalities and dozens of injuries. Guests at hotels, motels, and resorts can be protected from CO poisoning by installing a CO alarm in every guest room, like the installation of smoke alarms.

I looked around for a position paper from the hotel industry on this issue, and found one on the website of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Here’s what it said:

The safety of its guests is the highest priority of the lodging industry. Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a colorless, practically odorless, and tasteless gas. It has multiple industrial uses. Trace amounts of it occur naturally and are part of the atmosphere. Nevertheless, in high enough concentrations, it can be deadly and the risks of exposure to abnormal levels of CO are well known and well publicized. Although there are no federal rules on CO detection, nor is AH&LA empowered to set standards and policies, we urge our members to continue their CO monitoring and prevention policies.