Carbon monoxide calls spike in Mass.

Peter Reuell

In the wake of a Massachusetts law mandating carbon monoxide detectors in every home in the state, emergency calls involving the deadly but invisible, odorless and tasteless gas shot up, nearly doubling in the nine months after the law took effect.

Stephen Coan, the state fire marshal, wouldn't have it any other way.

Coan said the sudden rise of carbon monoxide calls shows the law, which took effect March 31, 2006, and the detectors, are working.

According to statistics compiled by the Department of Fire Services, carbon monoxide calls jumped by 93 percent, from 5,012 in 2005, to 9,651 in 2006.

"It (means the law) is working," Coan said. "We're very pleased that it is.

"What's happening now, is fire departments are responding to elevated levels of carbon monoxide in homes. It is being detected at a level where the fire department can respond and the situation can be mitigated prior to injury, sickness or death."

The law mandating the detectors is called "Nicole's Law," named after Nicole Garofalo, 7, who died Jan. 28, 2005, of carbon monoxide poisoning in Plymouth after snow covered up a furnace vent.

Often called the "invisible killer," carbon monoxide can build up inside homes that use fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas for heat, resulting in dizziness, headache, fatigue and, in some cases, death.

The state law mandating the detectors, Coan said, has allowed local fire departments to respond to potentially dangerous situations before they turn deadly.

"Historically, in this state we've seen incidents occur every year where people have become very ill, or where people have perished from carbon monoxide," he said.

The detectors, Coan and others said, have saved lives.

"Certainly, carbon monoxide has a fatal effect in lethal amounts," Framingham Assistant Fire Chief John Magri said. "Any early detection is going to save lives."

Though the increase hasn't been as dramatic as the state-wide reporting, the department also has seen an increase in carbon monoxide related calls, from 113 in 2006 to 148 in 2007, Magri said.

"The majority of those calls are because the carbon monoxide detector activated," he said. "They may not even be feeling ill, but they're getting an alarm activation,... and they're calling the fire department to come and investigate."

"We are seeing a steady rise in our calls for carbon monoxide detectors," agreed Franklin Fire Chief Gary McCarraher. "I think it's hit its intended audience."

"The detectors are doing their job, because carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and tasteless, so people do not realize when it is in their home," said Milford Fire Lt. Mark Nelson. "It's an early warning, and it's warning you of something you're not capable of detecting yourself.

"We've actually had people who have had detectors (go off) in their homes, and they think it's a malfunction...and there's actually been a serious carbon monoxide problem."

If the law has any kinks, McCarraher said, it's in enforcement.

Though the law requires detectors be placed in all homes, apartments and condominiums, enforcement of that mandate only comes up if the property is sold or changes hands.

Just as with smoke detectors, local fire departments inspect homes to ensure detectors are properly placed and working.

The recent downturn in the real estate market, however, has translated into fewer inspections in many towns, and fears among some departments that many homes may be skirting the detector requirement.

"The only time we can enforce the regulation is on a transfer or sale," McCarraher said. "The downturn in housing sales has really crimped the progress of enforcement, but we do get frequent calls from citizens wanting to know what the regulations are."

Though the department hasn't seen an increase in carbon monoxide calls, Marlborough Deputy Fire Chief Ron Ayotte said he's seen first-hand how effective the detectors can be.

"We've had a few incidents over the last year or so that carbon monoxide detectors did their job, and found problems with the heating system or with the stove," he said. "It definitely has helped, because when they are working properly they are finding problems and preventing tragedies."

In Natick, firefighters have responded to many calls over the last two years, finding carbon monoxide levels from as low as 35 to as high as 400 parts per million, Fire Chief Gene Sabourin said.

"It is working," he said. "Who knows what the levels could reach if they were allowed to go (on)? That's the idea, they're supposed to go off before they reach that level."

Peter Reuell can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at