UWM carbon monoxide leak; potentially lethal levels reported

New reports of a carbon monoxide leak at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Cambridge Commons states that carbon monoxide levels were not just high – they were potentially lethal.

Seventeen students were sickened as a result of the leak, which happened Feb. 28. The report found hazardous levels of carbon monoxide, including at the source of the leak in the thousands.

A carbon monoxide detector goes off when certain levels of the odorless, colorless gas are detected – generally at certain concentrations over a period of time. Usually, that level is never in high enough concentrations to put people in a coma, or worse.

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"Most carbon monoxide detectors are going to detect long before you would hit that unsafe level," said Ryan Feldman, a Wisconsin Poison Center clinical toxicologist. "If you’re exposed to a very high amount, you might not be able to be in that area for very long."

Feldman said smaller amounts of carbon monoxide over a long period of time could potentially do the same damage.

CO leak detected at Cambridge Commons, Milwaukee (Credit: Incident Response)

When the leak happened, Cambridge Commons did not have carbon monoxide detectors; the university said they were not required. It is unclear how high levels were that ultimately sent 17 students to the hospital.

The new report details that firefighters who responded to the leak encountered carbon monoxide readings of 190 parts per million – an amount hazardous to humans, which prompted the building's evacuation.

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When a basement steam boiler was found to be the source of the leak, the report states carbon monoxide was measured in excess of 2,000 parts per million. For context, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration prohibits workers from being exposed to more than 50 parts per million average over an 8-hour period. 

In a statement, UWM said Friday:

"We remain very grateful to the students and parents who had the presence of mind to notify us once they knew they were ill due to carbon monoxide. Those alerts allowed us to quickly evacuate the building and prevent more illness."

UWM Cambridge Commons

The university has since installed carbon monoxide detectors at Cambridge Commons and other residence halls, but they are temporary as UWM figures out where to place them long term.

UWM is also reviewing all possible carbon monoxide sources across campus and installing ways to monitor levels – regardless of whether it's required.

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