CO Poisoning, Personal Injury & Lawsuits

When Bogart found Hepburn trying to commit suicide via exhaust gas in the 1954 movie “Sabrina”, awareness of CO poisoning dangers were still at their infancy.

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Lawsuits related to CO poisoning and toxicity cases can be traced back to the 1920’s where CO exposure was rampant in coal mining due to use powder or dynamite explosions in blowing down coal. Such lawsuits usually fall under the umbrella of negligence, personal injury, product defect and liability. Individuals poisoned usually file suits on those thought to be responsible or parties liable such as manufacturers of furnaces, maintenance and equipment/appliance installers, builders and contractors, property management and landlords. When gathering engineering evidence for a carbon monoxide toxicity case, make sure the below key items are investigated per my protocol and as presented in my peer review published article:

  • K.Galatsis,“Gathering Engineering Evidence for Carbon Monoxide Toxicity Cases”, Medicine, Science and the Law,  British Academy for Forensic Sciences, 2015 (PDF)

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Step 1: Causation & Fault Mode

Was the CO pollution source identified? Was the fault mechanism / causation identified or verified?

  • In other words, which appliance produced the problematic CO spillage and how? Most times, CO causation can be visually identified due to obvious tell tale signs such as cracked flue vents or physical soot formation and deposits. But more often than not, more investigation is required to identify misdirected exhaust or natural air diffusion that transports contaminants into the occupant space. Multiple measurements would be required to confirm CO source and transport path(s).

Problematic carbon monoxide sources include portable generators, boilers, furnaces and other combustible burning appliances. Most appliances must conform to emission limits set by ANSI and EPA guidelines. In addition, key information such as compliance with mandatory CO product warning labeling such as 16 CFR Part 1407 “Portable Generators Labeling Requirements” and any state EPA exhaust certification should be verified. Some appliances have sensors that detect back-draft, temperature differences and combustibles in order to prevent poisoning situations. Operability of such sensor mechanisms and interlock systems need to be verified. In addition, shortcuts in installation and substandard practices may result in CO spillage.

  • Design and installation considerations.
  • Appliance operation and interlock systems.
  • Sensor technology and systems.
  • Compliance with Consumer Product Safety Commission product labeling requirements.

 A $29 Interlock System to prevent Carbon Monoxide Deaths

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Step 2: Carbon Monoxide Measurements

Carbon Monoxide measurements become pivotal in non-fatal and chronic CO exposure cases, where victims suffer neurological effects and normal day-to-day living can become severely degraded. In such cases, quantifying CO exposure such as where, when and how become crucial in evidence gathering.

Was the source CO concentration quantified?

  • Were CO air free measurement undertaken (?) in order to determine if suspect appliance(s) comply with ANSI carbon monoxide emission limits?

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What ambient CO concentration levels was I exposed to? (and for what period of time?)

  • Obtaining ambient field measurements of CO concentrations is more complex than analyzing air free exhaust gas due to the non restrictive air dynamics one finds in a environment such as a home. Walking with a CO meter in hand is unacceptable. The act of walking with the monitor creates microplumes that distorts CO data readings that would be a point of contention.

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  • Was compliance with Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act (Senate Bill – SB 183) verified?
  • Was compliance with NFPA 720 – Standard for the Installation of Carbon Monoxide verified?


Step 3: Carbon monoxide modeling

Ambient field measurements are most valuable that confirms and quantifies carbon monoxide exposure, but often not possible due to situational changes, such as appliance or venting rectification. On the contrary, CO contamination may still persist but concentration levels may be too high or too dangerous for testing. If so, one would need to “reconstruct” the ambient CO concentration using modeling methods where variables such as volume, air changes per hour (ACH) and time can be varied to better understand the contaminated environment. In this situation, the following should be performed in order to get the best estimates of ambient measurements and CO exposure magnitude:

  1. Modeling event reconstruction of CO concentrations.
  2. Dynamic and equilibrium modeling.
  3. Mass-balance and proximity effect modeling.
  4. CO concentration vs. time profile reconstruction.

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Step 4: CO Detector Faulty?

Beyond CO measurements and modeling efforts, questions regarding the operability of the CO detectors are often raised. Why didn’t my CO detector alarm? In such cases, CO laboratory measurements can verify correct operation and compliance with UL2034 “Single and Multiple Station Carbon Monoxide Alarms”. If it is deemed that CO detector alarm and sensor verification of compliance is required, then CO detectors should be tested in a controlled laboratory environment.

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