It was before midnight on Jan. 11, 2016, when Ohio University student Elise Rye looked at the carbon monoxide detector in her apartment. It was silent at the moment, but the alarm had been blaring a little less than two days prior, causing her apartment and the hookah bar directly beneath the apartment to evacuate.
The levels on the detector this night, however, were varying from around 30 parts per million (ppm) to 60 ppm rather than a constant zero. Still, no alarm went off. Not wanting to take any chances, she and her roommates called the fire department. Columbia Gas of Ohio arrived shortly after, tagged the detector as they had done when the alarm went off two days prior. After recording the CO levels at 27 ppm, the fire department turned off the furnace of Rye’s apartment as a precaution since furnaces are common sources of carbon monoxide leaks. With their flat filled with the colorless, odorless gas and having decided against getting a hotel room for the night, Rye and her roommates gathered their blankets and slept by the open windows of their living room.
From 2014 to present, the Athens Fire Department has responded to 103 calls related to carbon monoxide detectors. Of those calls, detector malfunctions— which can occur for something as simple as low batteries — account for 41 of the alarm calls, and 14 of the calls account for incidents where no carbon monoxide was found on site. However, there have been 48 alarm calls for the incident types 424, which are the occasions when carbon monoxide was found on site, 18 of which have happened in 2016. None of those calls originated from campus dorms, but rather from rental housing units such as Rye’s apartment.
Carbon monoxide can be produced from any gas-run appliance, along with fireplaces and tobacco smoke, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea or a combination thereof. With increased exposure, carbon monoxide begins to affect oxygen flow to the brain, bringing about weakness in one’s muscles, confusion, vomiting and/or loss of consciousness.
“Carbon monoxide has affinity for hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein in red blood cells,” Athens City-County Health Department Commissioner James Gaskell said in an email.“When carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin, less oxygen is available to the cells of the body. As a result, our cells cannot produce ATP which supplies us with energy.”
Gaskell said this lack of energy culminates in extreme exhaustion, resulting in the body being unable to produce energy and the failure of the respiratory system.
A chart from the National Comfort Institute from 2010 shows that symptoms of a headache, tiredness, dizziness and nausea can show up around 200 ppm after only a few hours. At 800 ppm, the gas can render a person unconscious in less than two hours, and kill them within two to three hours. Double the parts per million to 1,600 and there’s no delay in showing symptoms. Death occurs in an hour. At 12,800, carbon monoxide will claim lives in as little as a minute, three if the person is a healthy adult.
According to OSHA, Carbon monoxide poisoning may have a greater impact on certain groups of people, specifically people with heart or lung disease, people living or traveling at high altitudes and people who may already have high CO blood levels, such as smokers.
Athens City Council passed an ordinance in 2010 following concerns that the current detectors were not effective in detecting carbon monoxide under a certain frequency. Enacted in 2012, the ordinance required all rental housing to have carbon monoxide alarms powered both by batteries and electricity.
Now in 2016, Athens Fire Department Chief Robert Rymer is working on a proposal to change the legal code for rental housing in Athens. Instead of having the two sources of power, the current draft of the proposal suggests a transition to 10-year lithium batteries to eliminate the necessity of plugging in detectors.
One of the reasons the department is proposing a change in the code is because students were actually unplugging their carbon monoxide detectors, mostly because of the annoying sounds from the alarm that indicate the batteries are low. It’s important to note, however, that dying batteries were the cause of, at most, 41 calls to the fire department over the past two years.
“They’d (the residents) have an inspection and the detectors would be missing — to no fault of the landlord,” Rhymer said. “The landlord would put them in, and the students would take them out, put them wherever they want to put them, and they’d find them in the drawers somewhere.”
Like others, Rye and her roommates also unplugged their carbon monoxide detectors. Some of them were already unplugged when they moved in, while the remaining ones eventually dwindled in battery power and continued to sound even after the girls changed the batteries, at which time those were unplugged as well.
Rymer said it’s situations like this for which 10-year batteries could be a solution.
“They don’t have to worry about batteries going dead for a longer period of time,” Rymer said. “They don’t have to worry about any special plug-ins that some landlords are doing. It’ll be safer for the students because it’s going to be less likely for them to tamper with and more convenient for the landlords.”
Luckily, Rye and her roommates had their carbon monoxide detectors fixed in September 2015 — and the alarms went off during the middle of the night on Jan. 9, 2016. When the firefighters arrived, they measured the levels of carbon dioxide in the apartment at 68 ppm, according to the call alarm report. According to a chart from the National Comfort institute, levels between 36 and 99 ppm have caused infant deaths. Even enclosed parking garages require ventilation if their carbon monoxide levels reach 25 ppm.
“Something was odd about it. You could tell it was almost in the chimney and the furnace upstairs. So we went downstairs in the hookah bar and that’s where we found the highest level of carbon monoxide,” said Paul Shulz, one of the firefighters who responded to the alarm call. L’Heureux Properties worked to install a new furnace for the apartment nonetheless.
The Athens Pyramids, the property which is also owned by L’Heureux Properties, sits just under Rye’s flat. Up until those incidents, there had been no carbon monoxide detector in the hookah lounge, even though smoking tobacco produces CO, according to OSHA. The chimney of Rye’s apartment, in fact, goes down through the hookah bar.
Majid Bottlewill, the employee who had been working at The Athens Pyramids the second night said that when the firefighters came, they checked both of the furnaces of the hookah bar, but found more CO readings the closer they got to the customers smoking the hookah.
“We have two furnaces in this building,” Bottlewill said. “They (the firefighters) checked the first one, and they didn’t detect anything.” According to Bottlewill, the same went for the back one.
He also stated that as far as he knew from what the firefighters had told them, “the amount that they detected here was way less than the amount that they detected upstairs.”
Although the carbon monoxide was coming from the apartment’s furnace as well, the levels of carbon monoxide on the call alarm reports were higher both times than the levels of the apartment. The first call registered levels of 88 ppm compared to the apartment’s 68 ppm. The second time, on Jan. 11, the apartment levels were as high as 27 ppm, and 68 ppm downstairs at the hookah bar.
“I was shaky, and I called my dad,” Rye said, after the second call to the fire department. “We were contemplating getting a hotel room, but we decided to just sleep down here by the windows.”
So the three of them slept in their living room that night with their windows open in the beginning of January without heat. Their furnace was turned off to prevent any more leaking of CO until the rental company could install a new one, and electric heaters that the rental company provided the next morning ran up their electric bill.
Rye’s apartment is among L’Heureux’s more expensive three-bedroom units. The building is located right off Court Street, though it does have the hookah lounge right below. Rye said the rental company didn’t offer to lower the rent after the incident.
“When you’re on Court, everybody wants to live there so bad, so sometimes you don’t do your due diligence and find the right place,” said David L’Heureux, the head of facilities management and an Ohio University alumnus. He listed complaints about noise pollution from apartments above Casa Nueva as an example.
In the middle of January 2016, Pyramid Hookah Lounge was shut down to install a new ventilation system.
“There are regulations (for hookah lounges), but they (Pyramid Hookah Lounge) were grandfathered in,” Shulz said.
He added that the National Fire Protection Association came out with guidelines, but the hookah bar had started business before the regulations had come into play.
Today, a step inside the lounge shows purple covering the walls and booths in dim lighting, with separate rooms branching off from the main area. On the wall near the clerk counter is a newly installed carbon monoxide detector, almost a year old. The lounge is currently empty, and the detector reads zero.
Note: Rye has moved out of 5 1/2 Mill Street. The video shows clips from the apartment, but new tenants have moved in. They were gracious enough to let me film their house for the video.