Lawmakers learn about CO poisoning the hard way

By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Emotional testimony on Tuesday, Jan. 13, shook the normally placid House Business Affairs and Labor Committee as Don Johnson, the father of carbon-monoxide poisoning victim Lauren Johnson, spoke firmly between tears, at one point demanding cooperation from the assembled lawmakers.

“Don’t you dare not pass this bill! Please! Please!” he shouted as held up a photo of his 23-year-old daughter, a University of Denver graduate student who died Jan. 5 in her apartment near the campus.

Then Johnson held up an urn containing his daughter’s ashes.

“This is my daughter today! That’s all that’s left of her!” he shouted.

Johnson said an investment of only $20 for a carbon monoxide detector would have saved his daughters life, and he displayed a $20 bill.

Twenty dollars. That’s all it would take, spent on a device usually available in hardware or discount stores such as Wal-mart or Target.

Five highly publicized deaths from carbon monoxide in Colorado since Thanksgiving have motivated a push by legislators to require the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in all homes built after July 1 or put up for sale on or after that date.

House Bill 1091 also would require landlords to install CO detectors in any apartments that don’t have them whenever new tenants move in.

“This bill will try to save lives because, with carbon monoxide, you don’t smell it, you don’t see it, and you don’t taste it,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, on Monday.

“It’s a tragedy that we lose nine lives on average in the state of Colorado every year because of carbon monoxide,” Soper said.

State Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, and Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, are co-sponsoring the legislation.

A similar bill was killed in the Senate last spring under pressure from homebuilders and landlords who didn’t want to be held legally responsible for the performance of carbon monoxide detectors.

Backers of HB 1091, however, believe that public passion will motivate the passage of the legislation this time around. The sponsors have adjusted the legislation, leaving enforcement to local government and freeing homebuilders and rental-property owners from responsibility for malfunctions.

Nancy Burke, vice president of government affairs for the Colorado Apartment Association, said Soper had worked closely with her and had been very attentive to the apartment industry’s concerns.

“The bill introduced last spring would have cost our industry millions of dollars,” Burke said. “But we support the bill this time around because of the changes Representative Soper has made. We just want our tenants to be safe and to feel comfortable in their homes.”

Andrea Glass, of Denver, also testified before the committee, saying she and her family had been fortunate; the CO detectors they installed in their Breckenridge mountain home had saved their lives.

“If it was not for our carbon monoxide detectors, we would have all been dead,” said Glass, whose family almost experienced the same tragedy as the Lofgren family.

“It haunts me, it literally haunts me to know how close to death and injury we were.”

Members of the family had felt dizzy and nauseated during a visit to Breckenridge over Christmas break, and had attributed their symptoms to altitude sickness.

Then they remembered what had happened to the Lofgrens and decided to buy the last three carbon monoxide detectors in town. As soon as they installed the devices, all three began sounding an alarm. Immediately, the Glass family knew their altitude sickness was more serious than they had originally thought.

Captain Kim Scott of the Breckenridge Red, White and Blue Fire Department put it simply, “CO detectors save lives — period. If any good can come from the Lofgren family tragedy, it is this information getting out there and that it might have an influence on a wider adoption of alarms in homes and apartments.”

Although there has yet to be a vote on the bill, it has entered the amendment phase. As of now, the bill does not mandate the installation of CO detectors in hotels, movie theaters, restaurants or other public facilities, such as the Greeley skating rink, where exposure to toxic levels of CO on Jan. 10 sent seven children to the hospital.

“You can’t add every issue in every bill at one time,” said Soper. “This is the first step.”

“(CO) is a killer because it is tasteless, colorless and odorless, and the bottom line is CO detectors are your last defense,” said Lieutenant Phil Champagne, of the Denver Fire Department. “It is probably the cheapest life insurance you will ever buy.”

Beth@coloradostatesman.com