Senators advance bill requiring carbon monoxide detectors in public housing

Image: carbon monoxide detectors.
Copyright Chelsea Stahl NBC News
By Suzy Khimm with NBC News Politics
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"A CO detector is not a luxury accessory for well-to-do homeowners. It should be a basic life-saving necessity," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said.


A bipartisan Senate bill requiring carbon monoxide detectors in public housing moved forward on Wednesday as advocates urged legislators to act before winter, when there is an increased risk of poisoning from the deadly gas.

The bill, introduced in July by Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., advanced as an amendment by Scott to the annual legislation that funds the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation.

"Even one preventable death in our public housing facilities is too many, and this important amendment will help put an end to the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning for families across the nation, especially as we go into the higher-risk winter season," Scott said in a statement.

Three other Senate Democrats and two other Senate Republicans have co-sponsored the amendment, which requires carbon monoxide detectors in all federally assisted housing that has gas-fired appliances and other potential sources of the deadly gas.

The House passed its version of the bill in September after an NBC News investigation revealed the lack of protections for millions of low-income families who live in federally assisted housing, finding that at least 13 people had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in public housing since 2003. The House bill includes $300 million for installing detectors, while Senate appropriators will determine the amount of funding attached to Scott's amendment.

Since carbon monoxide is colorless, tasteless and odorless, public health officials — including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention— have long recommended installing detectors in all homes. But carbon monoxide detectors are still not required in federally subsidized units overseen by HUD and the Department of Agriculture, despite the agencies' mandate to ensure these homes are "decent, safe and sanitary."

"A CO detector is not a luxury accessory for well-to-do homeowners. It should be a basic life-saving necessity that belongs in every home, and that includes public housing," Menendez said on Wednesday at a briefing for congressional staff on the issue.

Carbon monoxide poisoning incidents tend to spike in the winter due to malfunctioning heating systems and appliances, said Dr. Sean Palfrey, a pediatrician at the Boston Medical Center, who called for the Senate to act quickly on the issue.

"All winter long, people — especially children — are brought to our emergency rooms, dizzy, confused, complaining of headaches," Palfrey said at Wednesday's congressional staff briefing, which was organized by advocates from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and the National Housing Law Project.

Palfrey explained that detectors were not only critical to preventing deaths, but also to helping doctors diagnose and treat patients with carbon monoxide poisoning, since the symptoms are often mistaken for other ailments.

Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning.

"The longer we wait to pass this bill, every day we risk someone's life," said Emily Benfer, a law professor at Columbia University and expert in housing-related health hazards.

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