Experts point out that the carbon monoxide leak that sickened nearly two-dozen Virginia Tech students and others earlier this week should serve as a warning to others going back to school in the fall, according to USA Today. The students were staying in an off-campus apartment building.
Carbon monoxide (CO), which is released when fossil fuels are burned, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that can cause sickness and even death. It is present in car exhaust, as well as emissions from water heaters, furnaces, gas-fired stoves and other appliances.
At Virginia Tech, officials blamed a malfunctioning water heater, the same type that killed a man and sickened more than 100 in a Salem, Va. dormitory last summer. Nationwide, about 500 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while more than 15,000 suffer symptoms that range from dizziness to nausea and fainting.
The specter of CO harm can be more acute on campuses because young people are less educated about the problem, and aren't familiar with the infrastructure of the buildings they inhabit. They generally don't own their spaces, and often live on shoestring budgets, so they are less likely to want to buy CO detectors. However, safety officials say it's crucial to have carbon monoxide detectors properly installed and tested in living spaces. The devices are inexpensive and readily available from discount, hardware, home and pharmacy stores.
Indoor air quality is an ongoing environmental problem that reaches far beyond CO. Where there is CO, there also may be leaks of other hydrocarbons, which may not be as dangerous, but can still irritate asthma and the immune system long term. The EPA has stated that indoor air is often two to ten times more polluted than what''s outside, so ventilation is essential. College students, in particular, often live in dorms that are furnished with cheap carpets, curtains, linens and so forth, which can aggravate air quality by off-gassing toxic volatile organic compounds. The flip side of the CO problem is that gas-fired equipment tends to be considerably more efficient than electric-powered devices. That means it may not be wise to swap gas units with electric ones, at least until we generate more of our energy with clean, renewable technology. Coal-fired power plants, the source for much of our current electricity, have enormous drawbacks of their own.
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