An in-depth investigating into carbon monoxide poisonings during the ice storm in Texas in February found a public health crisis that could have been prevented with a $15 piece of equipment lawmakers didn’t regulate.
The Texas Tribune told the heartbreaking account of one family’s carbon monoxide poisoning after they tried to warm up in their car during the power outages that shook the state:
Etenesh Mersha, 46, meanwhile, made a fateful decision, one repeated by scores of Texas residents who lost electricity that week. Desperate to warm up, she went into their attached garage and turned the key to start her car. As the engine hummed, it provided power to run the car’s heater and charge her phone while she talked to a friend in Colorado — at the same time, filling her garage and home with a poisonous gas.
There was no carbon monoxide alarm in place to warn the family of the invisible danger. None was required under local or state law.
The Mersha family lost Etenesh as well as their little girl. The family’s patriarch and young son survived with minimal brain damage after weeks on oxygen. The story of the Mersha family is far from rare, the Tribune found. So many people were poisoned by carbon monoxide during the power outages from the storm that many hospitals began to run out of beds and lifesaving oxygen to treat all of the victims. And the victims were, of course, mainly from lower income or marginalized groups who had less options for getting warm. Experts told the paper that carbon monoxide poisonings during the storms were a completely preventable public health disaster:
At least 11 deaths have been confirmed and more than 1,400 people sought care at emergency rooms and urgent care clinics for carbon monoxide poisoning during the weeklong Texas outage, just 400 shy of the total for 2020. Children made up 42% of the cases. The totals don’t include residents who were poisoned but did not seek care or those who were treated at hospitals and urgent care clinics that do not voluntarily report data to the state.
Black, Hispanic and Asian Texans suffered a disproportionate share of the carbon monoxide poisonings, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News found based on a review of statewide hospital data. Those groups accounted for 72% of the poisonings, far more than their 57% share of the state’s population.
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One of the problems, it seems, is a complete lack of state-wide requirements for carbon monoxide detectors in newly built or recently remodeled homes. The device is laughably cheap — only $15 — yet Texas is one of only five states with no statewide carbon monoxide detector requirements at all, despite multiple attempts over the years from lawmakers. And it’s not like the benefits of requiring such detectors isn’t obvious. From the Tribune again:
In some states that have passed robust statewide rules, there’s been a significant reduction in poisonings, fire safety experts say.
“When the state comes in and requires it, there is continuity across the whole state — there is one message,” said Jim Smith, the state fire marshal in Minnesota, where emergency department visits for carbon monoxide poisoning fell by 45% — from 411 to 226 — in the seven years after the state passed a sweeping law requiring alarms in most private residences. “It is no different than a seat belt.”
The entire Texas Tribune story is well worth your time. Suffice to say, you should never, ever leave your car running in an enclosed space, nor bring inside charcoal grills meant for outdoor use.
Correction: The headline incorrectly listed the death toll in Texas as at least 100 deaths. The actual death toll is 11 deaths and 1,400 sicken. We regret the error.