A man has died of carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped in a van during a fire in northern Toronto, the first death linked to the city’s policy on the use of gas-powered generators indoors.
Saturday’s fire and the death brought into sharp focus concerns raised by city officials in 2014 about the impact of a potentially fatal leaky heating system that can trap gas-powered generators inside brick and stone houses.
Carbon monoxide is invisible but can cause someone to suffocate within minutes if concentrations high enough.
David Pomerleau, a former city councillor and the vice-chair of Toronto Public Health, says his agency overestimated the risk of carbon monoxide exposure and, in turn, underestimated the number of people at risk.
“We were faced with an impossible requirement in that the city could not afford to pull the plug,” Pomerleau said, adding that the policy amounts to the Toronto government forcing a hospital system to only admit patients with “critical, comatose” consciousness to a hospital in the city.
Carbon monoxide poisoning, on the other hand, “can be cured if it is detected and dealt with in a competent manner,” Pomerleau said.
He pointed to the fact that two of the seven people who died after making a home-based run for groceries last summer did not have access to a CO detector.
“I think this policy is a failure,” Pomerleau said.
Carbon monoxide poisoning “can be cured if it is detected and dealt with in a competent manner”
The city of Toronto passed the COVID-19 policy in 2014, requiring anyone who needs to run a gas-powered generator to at least have a CO detector, in addition to regular safety precautions like installing window guards. It is something B.C.’s health department also requires.
More than 1,500 complaints have been made to Toronto Public Health’s Emergency Patient Treatment Unit since 2014, and 330 have led to hospitalizations due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
In the 2014 law, the City of Toronto laid some charges, but none have been served against residents. Instead, the city considers issues like smell and fumes to be potential “material omissions” that don’t rise to the level of a violation, meaning the summons won’t be served.
“What are the resources and resources for enforcement? That has been the challenge,” Toronto City Councillor Gord Perks said. “This policy really is not enforced.”
Still, a grassroots movement has cropped up in opposition to the policy. New parents of young children have raised concerns about the fire safety of backyard grills that use gas as an ignition source. Residents have taken to cities’ streets in an attempt to gain legal protection from the rule. In January 2017, Ontario’s government offered a rebate on the $70 COMAX-19 detector for homeowners who purchase a detector this year.
The rule is not confined to Toronto. Cities in Ontario, including Mississauga, Hamilton and Peterborough, have similar policies in place.
Carbon monoxide has caused a number of deaths in Britain and the United States. In California, a new rule has been under consideration that would force home owners to install CO detectors on every level of their properties.
Jennifer Williams, a chemical engineer in Sydney, Australia, suggested that the government create a standard to make carbon monoxide detectors cheaper. In order to help people understand their potential exposure levels, Canada can compile data on childhood deaths resulting from carbon monoxide poisoning.
In London, Ontario, there have been no CO poisoning deaths because of the CoVID-19 policy. But with the gas vehicle industry flourishing in the city, people continue to run gas-powered generators in their basements and garages.
Matthew Donohue, a spokesperson for Toronto Public Health, said the city is committed to ensuring safety standards around the use of gas generators.
“The health risks posed by carbon monoxide inhalation are real, and we are continuing to work hard to reduce deaths and protect Ontarians from them,” Donohue said.