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Carbon Monoxide - Cleaning the Air

When you got trouble, who you gonna call? Not the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) – at least not if you’re facing the wrong kind of emergency. When a carbon monoxide alarm went off at a Bronx co-op recently, the resident who owned it called the city government and it, in turn, called the FDNY – and the other shareholders at the 435-unit Bronx property have come to regret it.

It all started shortly before Thanksgiving 2004, when a carbon monoxide detector went off and a resident on the 16th floor dialed 311, the city’s information line, to ask what to do.

Don Wilson, the co-op’s managing agent and president of Blue Woods Management, recalls what happened next: “Three-one-one dispatched the fire department, and the FDNY came in there at 8:30 at night. They didn’t wait for a handyman or the super. They went to the apartment and ripped the stove away from the wall. In New York City, there are a lot of apartments which have hard-piped gas connections; they don’t have a flexible hose between the stove and the gas main. In this case, the hard black iron pipe snapped.”

Once the gas pipe was broken, the firefighters headed to the building’s basement and, Wilson says, “instead of waiting for someone to isolate the riser, they went to the main meter room and shut off the heat and cooking gas to 435 apartments.”

For Blue Woods, the next two weeks became a very long – and expensive – ordeal. Gas valves in each apartment had to be shut off, and both Con Edison and the Department of Buildings had to see test results. The original problem – a possible carbon monoxide condition – had turned into every building’s nightmare scenario: pressure tests that some gas lines wouldn’t pass.

Wholesale valve replacements followed, to the tune of $120,000. Now, the board, through Blue Woods, is trying to recover damages from the city for having caused a far larger problem than the one that warranted the initial alarm. Perhaps the greatest irony is that Wilson believes the carbon monoxide detector that started the chain of events wasn’t measuring a dangerous level of the gas at all; it was probably malfunctioning, perhaps because of a low battery.

Carbon monoxide is produced through “incomplete combustion,” which occurs when a fire doesn’t have enough room to breathe. When a garage door is closed tightly and a car is left running, for example, the internal combustion engine will use up the available free oxygen in the air. At that point, carbon monoxide, which is lighter than air and thus tends to rise, is produced. Carbon monoxide is the right size and shape to bond to the iron atoms in human hemoglobin, a complex molecule in the blood that carries oxygen through the body. This prevents the hemoglobin from capturing oxygen, and the result is suffocation. In 2003, 250 people in the United States died of carbon monoxide poisoning, most of them while sleeping.

It only takes a little carbon monoxide – which is colorless and odorless – to create a toxic condition. Since 1986, reports Keyspan, Brooklyn’s gas company, New York City buildings have been required to install sensors that shut down furnaces in the event of a carbon monoxide build-up in the chimney.

New York’s Local Law 7 of 2004 made the installation of carbon monoxide detectors mandatory after November 1 of this past year. But, according to the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, there has not been a rash of incidents. Still, boards and managing agents ignore the issue at their peril.

When Paula Gillen, who lives in a 120-unit, two-building Brooklyn co-op, found her carbon monoxide detector going off, she took the batteries out, replaced them, and then put in a call to her managing agent. She reasoned that, because her apartment is directly over her co-op’s parking garage, fumes from the cars were making their way up through the floorboards. Although she has none of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning – headaches, tightness of chest, dizziness, nausea, fatigue – she is worried, wants the problem fixed, and is still keeping the window open.

Jerry Lemmermann, vice president of operations at the co-op’s management firm, JAL Diversified Management, has assigned manager John Monck to the case. He has engaged an environmental firm, Malloy & Co. of Manhattan, to take readings in Gillen’s home. Lemmermann says that JAL will determine if there are any openings from the garage to the apartment and also make sure that garage vents are working.

Paul Sorrentino, a spokesman for Keyspan Energy Delivery, notes that people whose carbon monoxide detectors go off should call their local gas company. He adds that weak batteries, as well as low barometric pressure, can cause a detector to sound an alarm when there is no actual emergency.

Even if it’s a case like Gillen’s, where the fumes appear to be coming from outside the apartment, Sorrentino says the gas company will send someone to take a reading. If their search turns up a stove that’s producing carbon monoxide, they’ll shut it off and have it repaired.

He cautions that carbon monoxide is an extreme hazard when people use their ovens to heat their apartments, as well as when they are cooking for very long periods. “Don’t use your gas flame to heat your apartment,” he cautions. “Carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of a natural gas flame, but when there’s no more oxygen, it turns into carbon monoxide. That’s why water heaters, boilers, and dryers are all vented. And you’ve got to crack the window when you’re cooking a turkey for six and seven hours. Keep it well ventilated.”

Boards should take measures to prevent a mishap like the one that happened at the Bronx building. “For any kind of a gas emergency, including carbon monoxide,” suggests Blue Woods’s Wilson, “the residents should call the doorman or the super – whoever is on duty – first. In most instances, it’s a minor problem that can be easily fixed, and if you don’t handle it that way, and there are delays, and the fire department shows up ten minutes later, it could be much bigger problem. I’ve had situations where the pilot light on a gas stove is blown out, and you’d hate to have a building shut down for something like that.”

Con Ed’s latest customer newsletter does not recommend a call to 311 or 911. If a carbon monoxide alarm sounds but no one is experiencing symptoms, Con Ed notes, “ventilate your home with fresh air, turn off all potential CO sources, and leave the affected area.” Once you’ve eliminated the possibility of a malfunctioning detector, the next step – a full inspection including environmental readings – should be up to your managing agent.

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