|By Mike Gorrell, The Salt Lake
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 7, 2007 - Over a 15-year period, carbon monoxide poisoning at hotels, motels and resorts claimed 27 lives nationwide, according to a study by the medical director of LDS Hospital's Hyperbaric Medicine Center.
The number is small, but what most disturbs Center Director and report author Lindell K. Weaver is that the frequency of carbon monoxide (CO) incidents held steady over the period of his study, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
"We're still seeing as many poisoned people now [from hotels and motels] as we did 10 years ago," said Weaver. "We could probably stop all of this with some sort of detection [equipment] in every forced-air heating system or where boilers are. . . . The hospitality industry ought to think about it and think about a solution to prevent it."
Because requirements vary from state to state, Weaver said a federal mandate for CO detectors in all hotels and motels would be a good starting point, noting that he and assistant Kayla Deru uncovered scores of poisoning incidents at lodging facilities in detailed searches of legal and online news databanks and Center data.
The industry has responded to periodic reports of carbon monoxide poisonings, such as a fatal case that occurred in Florida in the past year, said Steve Lindburg, general manager of the Hilton Salt Lake City and former president of the Utah Hotel & Lodging Association.
"A lot of hotels are installing carbon monoxide monitors like the ones you might have in your house, constantly evaluating the atmosphere in mechanical spaces. If the CO level ever exceeds the norm, it sounds an alarm," he said.
"But it's an extremely rare occurrence, and people should feel safe when renting a hotel room," Lindburg added. "While the odds are infinitesimal, that doesn't mean there isn't a responsibility for the operator to provide a safe hotel."
The study found that 711 guests, 41 employees or owners and 20 rescue personnel were poisoned accidentally in 68 incidents between 1989 and 2004. Weaver said incidents occurred across the country, adding that he could recall only one in Utah.
Exposure to CO resulted in 27 deaths and 66 cases in which victims developed pathological conditions. Six cases ended up with juries awarding damages to the victims. The awards averaged $4.8 million per incident, ranging from $1 million to $17.5 million.
By contrast, roughly 200 people die each year from carbon monoxide accidents, many in their homes.
Most often, exposure occurred in "small ma-and-pa places. But major chains have had poisoning episodes, even five-star luxury hotels," he said, declining to identify hotels by name.
Weaver and Deru contacted 43 sites where CO poisonings occurred and found that only 12 percent installed detectors afterward. They also determined CO detectors were in the rooms of only 11 percent of 101 lodging facilities that had not had CO problems.
About one CO-afflicted person per week comes into the hospital's Hyperbaric Medicine Center, said Weaver. Just last week, he noted, two men cutting concrete with gas-powered saws were overcome by fumes.
"A lot of times people come in say 'there's something wrong with me. Can I talk to you?' We learned that some people were coming from hotel-related poisonings," Weaver said.
In Salt Lake City, home to many hotels, fire prevention bureau inspectors check for compliance with the international fire code.
"For CO, they typically require detection at the boiler-room area," said Ted Itchon, fire plans examiner in the Salt Lake City Building Department.
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