In Putney, Boiler Issue Sends 11 School Kids/1 Adult To Hospital

A majority of the boiler incidents/accidents in VT over the past decade have been in schools. VSEA members have been voicing their concerns about the State no longer conducting boiler inspections for just as long.

Article published Jan 7, 2011
Fumes send 11 Putney students and one adult to hospital
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer
PUTNEY — Strong fuel oil fumes from a malfunctioning furnace at Putney Central School sent 11 students and one adult to the hospital at noontime Thursday on suspicion of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The students and one paralegal were treated and released from Brattleboro Memorial Hospital before school let out for the day, according to Superintendent Ron Stahley, who came to the school to oversee the response.

While the initial suspicion was that the boiler was emitting carbon monoxide fumes, testing by both the Putney Fire Department and Rescue Inc., the regional ambulance service, revealed no unusual levels of the odorless, colorless gas in the school.

Rescue Inc., checked children’s bloodstreams, and found no level of the poisonous gas.

Stahley said a janitor first noticed a smell coming from one of the school’s furnaces, and the 184 students at the town’s elementary school were quickly moved to the gymnasium while officials tried to determine what was wrong.

The fumes were traces to fuel oil, which wasn’t being pumped properly due to a malfunctioning motor in the boiler, he said. The fumes affected four different classrooms.

Schools are not required to have carbon monoxide alarms, said Putney Fire Chief Thomas Goddard.

Goddard said carbon monoxide alarms are only required in buildings where people sleep.

“But my personal opinion is that all schools should have carbon monoxide alarms,” Goddard said.

About 30 students were complaining of nausea and headaches, according to Goddard, who coordinated the emergency response, which brought ambulances from as far away as Walpole, N.H., and Bellows Falls to transport the students.

About three dozen students were evaluated for symptoms, with close to a dozen transported to the hospital for treatment. Goddard said the students who were complaining of nausea and headaches were treated with high-flow oxygen.

Stahley was at a meeting at the school in neighboring Dummerston at the time of the 11:15 a.m. incident, said he quickly came to the school, particularly since Principal Herve Pelletier was away at a meeting for the day.

He said the school’s emergency notification system was used, with automated calls going out to all parents.

The parents of children sent to the hospital were notified in person, the superintendent said.

School was only slightly disrupted by the problem, Stahley said, and school was not cancelled. After some repairs, the balky boiler was back in service.

Some of the students taken to the hospital were back in class by the afternoon.

Parents who came to the school Thursday to pick up their children said they were pleased by the response and quick communication.

Parent Sarah Armour-Jones, mother of a 5- and a 7-year-old, said the school made phone calls immediately.

“I really appreciated the great communication,” said Armour-Jones, who said her children were not affected by the fumes.

“Nobody seems seriously injured,” she said, waiting outside the school with her family’s puppy.

Stahley said the boiler in question was about 20 years old and was on a long-range list to be replaced. The school has several furnaces, so heat was never off in the school.

Stahley said carbon monoxide alarms would be installed next to the boiler.

“It’s a scary situation, and we were not sure what was going on,” the superintendent said. “The staff and students did a great job.”

The Putney incident comes less than a week after a Massachusetts man died at his vacation home in Killington. Investigators blamed a faulty heater in the man’s sleeping quarters. The man’s wife and several other people were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning.