It’s known as the silent killer. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, produced by burning fuel, that can be deadly. It is a much bigger problem when the weather gets colder like this.
The repeated presence of CO in recent weeks in a local school has parents and county officials questioning both school leadership and a construction company.
Over the course of six days at the end of January and beginning of February, tests showed Canistota school had carbon monoxide in the building, sickening 25 children and ten teachers.
The problem was caused by construction on a new gym, but how it was handled is the subject of our KELOLAND News Investigation.
Canistota is in the process of adding on a new multi-million dollar addition to its school, which includes replacing a gym built-in 1950. The project was moving along more than a month ahead of schedule when Hoogendorn Construction began laying down the cement floor.
“Due to lingering fumes in the building due to an excess of machinery currently being used due to construction, Canistota will not have school tomorrow,” a recorded message from the school said to parents.
That’s the message the parents of Canistota fourth grader, Kolton Fowler, got from school on January 28th.
“When they had the alert, all they did was move the students to another classroom. They didn’t evacuate the building,” Father Shawn Fowler said.
“I thought the proper action was taken and that there were no affected kids,” Mother Carrie Yoas said.
However, the fire department was notified and was monitoring CO levels.
The students, including Kolton returned to school on Monday, February 1st; only the school called his mom at 1:40 p.m. to tell her he had a headache.
“As soon as I said he wouldn’t take Tylenol, then I was told that he actually was also experiencing nausea and there have been borderline readings in his class today. And did I want him to stay at school and be moved to another part, or did I want him to leave the school?” Yoas said.
She asked that Colton be sent home.
Kennecke: Did a lot of time go by between you realizing there was carbon monoxide in the air and parents being notified?
Larry Nebelsick, Canistota Superintendent: Part of the problem of notification was as soon as we found out, we’re all trying to monitor and move kids and monitor kids and yes, some time did go by, but it wasn’t intentional.
McCook County Emergency Manager, BJ Stiefvater paid a visit to the building on Monday.
“I made it clear that under health and public safety and I can come in and shut everything down and stop everything. I shouldn’t have to do that. I told the superintendent you have the power to fix this situation, whether that was to close school down or stop the project,” Stiefvater said.
Nebelsick: We opened the doors and ventilated the school and moved kids to safe areas and had them there and were monitoring those areas for the rest of the day.
Kennecke: Should you have evacuated the school at that point?
Nebelsick: In hindsight, probably.
“I’m upset because I feel like, had I said, yes, he can have Tylenol, he would have stayed at school and have been continued to be exposed to what we have already established is carbon monoxide, very dangerous, Yoas said.
Yet the next day, February 2nd, Hoogendorn Construction picked up where it had left off–pouring cement while the kids were in school.
Nebelsick: The next Tuesday they had a smaller pour and they assured us they had it vented and they had some fans.
Kennecke: Because you already knew this could be a problem?
Nebelsick: Right and they assured us it was vented. We did get a raise in this hallway and by the commons in the high school and these first two rooms.
“There was a definite lack of urgency and failure of communication on the superintendent’s part with what the fire department was relaying to them of what was going on. Every time the machines were turned on, the CO was going to build and on top of that you have the HVAC in the building which is recirculating that and dumping it back on the classrooms that have closed doors,” Stiefvater said.
Stiefvater was back on the construction site that day.
“When we made our way through the construction zone, they had a window that was approximately three feet by three feet open and a fan blowing toward it, for the whole entire project, which is not adequate at all,” Stiefvater said.
“So they had a repeat offense, the same thing, they were still pouring concrete; still using machinery and that was the sole cause of carbon monoxide in the school,” Fowler said.
A construction worker also fell ill, prompting an OSHA complaint.
Hoogendorn Construction told OSHA in this written response that after February 1st, it upgraded the separation walls, opened the doors and windows to the extent possible and continued work. The letter also noted that the volunteer fire department took readings by the operating equipment that were in the 30-40PPM in the construction site.
Those are below OSHA’s acceptable levels for a job site. OSHA then closed the complaint.
“As soon as we were made aware of an issue, we did what we could to respond to that and take care of it. The school worked with us and we worked with them.”Paul Maasen, President of Hoogendorn Construction.
“Regardless of what OSHA says, if there is CO somewhere and you have people having side effects and symptoms of it, that’s an issue. Initially one of the classrooms with one of the highest reading we read, with a closed-door closest to it with a vent running into it were between 120 to 150 (PPM)–fairly high levels–enough to if a teacher would have gone in and sat down, could have passed out and be found dead later in the afternoon.”BJ Stiefvater, McCook County Emergency Manager
Luckily, nothing like that happened and school was cancelled on February 4th and 5th. The cement job was complete before students returned to class on Monday the 8th.
In response to the situation, the school has hired a safety expert to remain on site until construction is complete this spring. But that may not be enough to reassure concerned parents.
“I don’t have enough trust in the school right now that the safety of the kids is above the project,” Yoas.
“These kids are our kids too. We love each and every one of them. We are going to do what we need to do to keep them safe,” Nebelsick said.
No one went to the hospital after getting sick from the carbon monoxide. While a couple dozen students had lingering symptoms, such as nausea and extreme tiredness, they have since recovered.