BY THEA BURKE ’20
It has long been understood by the general public that carbon monoxide is severely detrimental, if not a direct threat, to human health. A high enough exposure to the gas can kill a person within several minutes. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to carbon monoxide can cause dizziness, vomiting, headaches and long-term health effects such as increased risk of heart disease permanent brain damage, although these long-term effects require more research.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not require carbon monoxide detectors to be installed in public housing units. Although HUD requires buildings to follow state laws, about half of the states in the U.S. do not require detectors, leaving many homes unprotected from the noxious gas. This oversight has recently come into the public eye following an NBC investigation of the death of two residents of a South Carolina Allen District Court public housing complex after a carbon monoxide gas leak on Jan. 17 of this year. In the United States, about 50,000 people a year visit the hospital for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. NBC reports that there have been at least 13 deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning in public housing complexes under the jurisdiction of HUD since 2003.
Preston Smith, Professor of Politics and Chair of the Africana Studies Department at Mount Holyoke College, cites underfunding and neglect for these oversights. He sees the deaths of the two South Carolina residents as the “latest example of the effects of federal disinvestment in low-income housing in the United States. It is this consistent lack of appropriations that caused the unhealthy conditions in the Allen Benedict Court public housing complex in the first place. And the preventable deaths are also evidence of HUD’s systematic neglect of poor residents when they do not require carbon monoxide detectors in federal public housing,” he said. When the complex in South Carolina was inspected this past January following the deaths, high levels of carbon monoxide were found in all 26 buildings. The levels were so high that residents were evacuated and could not immediately return.
According to NBC News, over 400 people reside in this South Carolina complex, primarily African Americans. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the majority of public housing residents in the United States include the elderly and the disabled, who comprise 57 percent of this demographic. Along with these groups, NBC notes that of the roughly 4.6 million people that rely on public housing, many are families that have young children. Public housing residents are disproportionately affected by carbon monoxide poisoning, as the elderly and the young are particularly vulnerable. Poor ventilation and defective appliances are frequently the cause of carbon monoxide buildup, issues that public housing complexes are riddled with. According to NBC, HUD claims that around 10,000 such housing units are bulldozed each year because they are in an irreparable state. Repairing units is no small feat — according to Politico, in 2018 the New York Housing Authority estimated that it took $25 billion for various repairs in 326 public housing buildings in the state of New York.
According to NBC, following the investigation HUD has stated that they will soon be requiring federal inspectors to determine if public housing units that have fuel-powered appliances or a garage attached to the building are equipped with detectors. However, landlords will not face any penalty if detectors are missing or broken.
Residents, housing advocates and some government officials have been frustrated with HUD’s slow progress on this issue. A bill has now been proposed that would require working detectors in all public housing buildings. Smith commented that this is an issue that has been prevalent despite shifting administrations. “While HUD secretary Ben Carson and the Trump Administration should share some of the blame for this tragedy, the fact is underfunding of public housing has gone on for decades under both Democratic and Republican administrations,” he said. Although repairs to a public housing complex are costly, Representative Jesus Garcia (D-IL) has noted that the solution is far from too expensive. “There is no reason that the federal government cannot protect the most vulnerable among us when the solution is so affordable,” he says. “For HUD to allow this to fester for so many years, it’s just unconscionable.” Carbon monoxide detectors can be as inexpensive as $20.
Other government officials, including Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and Representative Joe Cunningham (D-SC) have spoken critically of HUD’s progress and support the proposed House bill.
While the bill has yet to be passed, the new requirement for federal inspectors went into effect April 1 and is seen as a hopeful, yet long overdue, step forward in the department’s policy on carbon monoxide protection.