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Rossen Reports: Carbon monoxide endangers schoolchildren

In Atlanta on Monday, dozens of children were rushed to the hospital when their school became filled with carbon monoxide. Why wasn't there a warning before kids got sick? NBC's Jeff Rossen investigates why not all schools are required to have carbon monoxide detectors installed.


In Atlanta Monday, dozens of schoolchildren were rushed to the hospital when their school became filled with carbon monoxide. Why didn't they get a warning before the kids got sick?

Turns out, this school didn't have any carbon monoxide detectors. In fact, we looked into it, and in most states, there are no laws, no requirements for schools to have them at all. That means your children could be breathing this poisonous gas in their classroom every day... and not even know it.

The scene: Frightening for any parent. Young children pulled from school Monday on stretchers... overcome by carbon monoxide fumes.

"I don't know what happened, but I guess my brother's head was hurting and his stomach was hurting and they had to take him to the hospital," said fourth-grader Shamya McElroy.

"Some kids, they felt scared," said third-grader Rhyanna Tyson. "I felt scared too."

Forty-three students and six adults at Finch Elementary in Atlanta, rushed to the hospital. 

"I just want to know if my daughter is OK," said parent Laquanda Barber.

Teachers and students were hospitalized after being overcome by carbon monoxide in Georgia. NBC's Chris Clackum reports.

School officials think a faulty furnace caused the leak, sending dangerously high levels of the gas into classrooms. And with no CO detectors in school, no one knew until it became an emergency.

"Our highest reading to date right now is 1700 parts per million, which is the highest that we've ever, ever monitored since I've been with the city of Atlanta," said Todd Edwards, a battalion chief at the Atlanta Fire Department.

And it's happening across the country. Just last month in Philadelphia, 50 students were sent to the ER when a backup generator at the school malfunctioned, sending carbon monoxide into the air.

In Baltimore last year, two cases at two different schools in one week. Fifty-two people sent to hospitals. 

And doctors say children can be hurt even at lower levels, breathing this colorless, odorless gas day after day.

Dr. Philip Landigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine told us: "Lower level exposure, exposure that's too low to produce acute symptoms, can still cause problems, and those problems are learning disabilities in children and possibly cardiovascular problems."

Problem is, you children may be at risk right now. In many states, homes are required to have carbon monoxide detectors. But only two states, Maryland and Connecticut, mandate them in schools, which means that in the vast majority of the country, schools don't have those life-saving alarms.

State legislator Jeffrey Berger wrote the law in Connecticut. "It's common sense legislation that protects our children," he told us.

But, we asked: "Some school districts may say, 'Look, it's too expensive and it's not worth the price of installing all these detectors.'"

"That's just crazy to say that it's too expensive," Berger said. "The costs are not that expensive. We look at it at $5,000 a district, the device itself is $50 or less."

"What do you want to say to the other 48 states that don't require these detectors?"

"Make it happen. They should make that happen, to protect the lives of students and administrators," Berger said.

Sometimes it takes a scare to change. In Atlanta, hours after this emergency, the superintendent announced they're now considering detectors in classrooms.

"They should be required," said parent Sylvia King. "If home have to be required, schools have to be required as well."

This morning, some good news: Nearly all the students and adults who were overcome by those fumes in Atlanta have already been released from the hospital. Safety experts say they were lucky: All schools should have detectors, so it doesn't get to this.

In the meantime, doctors say, there are things you can look for. If your child feels tired or nauseous at school, but then feels better when they get home, that could be a sign of exposure. For more tips on how to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, click here.

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