I-Team: Life-saving carbon monoxide detectors not required in Illinois schools

The I-Team investigates why Illinois children are not protected from a silent killer: carbon monoxide. (WLS)
May 13, 2014 9:00:34 PM PDT
An I-Team investigation of a mysterious illness at a suburban school led to questions about why Illinois children are not protected from a silent killer: carbon monoxide.

Schools prepare for lots of threats, but the silent killer isn't among them. They hold fire drills, plan for weather emergencies and spend millions of tax dollars on security. But the I-Team has learned that there is no requirement to protect school children and staff from carbon monoxide, even though it kills hundreds of people a year across the U.S.

"As I started to smell it more, headache got worse and I started to get really dizzy," said Patricia Corasis, student.

Patricia Corasis, 16, says she smelled it first last December in a math class at Stagg High School in suburban Palos Hills. The odd odor lead to a mass evacuation. More than a dozen students and teachers were taken to local hospitals with the symptoms: headache, dizziness, nausea.

"With the number of students who were starting to feel ill and staff we knew the best thing to do was get out of the building," said Eric Olsen, principal, Amos Alonzo Stagg High School.

"It was quite frightening in the beginning," said Maria Corasis, mother.

The Corasis family says it's been an ordeal. There's no clear cause for the noxious odor, but School District 230 officials suspect carbon monoxide, or CO, was in the mix. The gas can be deadly if not caught in time.

Principal Eric Olsen says reports from the ER showed signs of carbon monoxide exposure in some kids. He says extensive testing was done in and around the school and an independent environmental report backs the school's claim that nothing inside was to blame.

"This causes some concern, simply for the reason being will this happen again," said John Corasis.

According to the "National Conference of State Legislatures" right now only four states in the country require carbon monoxide detectors in schools. None of those are in the Midwest, but that could soon change.

The I-Team has learned that next month, the National Fire Protection Association plans to update its life safety code to require CO alarms in most new K-12 schools. As a precaution, Stagg High School says eight detectors have now been placed near air intake vents. The alarm will alert staff if carbon monoxide is present, especially in its pure, odorless state.

Speculation is foggy conditions allowed carbon monoxide from an outside source, possibly car exhaust, to be sucked into the building.

Air quality expert David Jacobs says it's not unusual for these cases to remain a mystery, and a continued threat. He says part of the problem is inadequate standards for indoor air quality.

"We encouraged EPA to do what it can to adopt further protective measures but to be honest their authority is limited," said Jacobs.

Stagg officials say they have done everything to prevent a recurrence.

"I feel like our school is very safe," said Olsen.

The Corasis family remains skeptical, and they say something else stinks. They are stuck paying part of the hefty medical bills for their daughter's ambulance ride and hospital treatment.

"We are looking at roughly a tad under $1,400," said John Corasis.

The school's insurance company is denying the family's medical claims. What they and other families are discovering is schools are rarely liable for any injuries, including exposure to mysterious, noxious fumes.

"The statute is the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, and it gives blanket immunity for negligence to both the schools and its employees," said Chip Barry, attorney, Corboy & Demetrio.

District 230 administrators say this situation is no different than any other medical emergency at school where parents are responsible for all associated costs.

Illinois legislation to mandate carbon monoxide alarms for schools has, so far, gone nowhere. The bill's sponsor says it will be reintroduced next year.