Hotel room deaths raise carbon monoxide concerns for travelers

June 11, 2013 at 3:19 PM ET

Emergency vehicles outside a hotel in Boone, N.C., where an 11-year-old-boy died from asphyxia.
Emergency vehicles outside a hotel in Boone, N.C., where an 11-year-old-boy died from asphyxia.

A trio of deaths at a hotel in Boone, N.C., two by carbon monoxide and one by asphyxia, could have travelers wondering if they should be concerned about running out of oxygen on their next vacation.

“Travelers should be concerned,” said Ted Panagiotopoulos, owner of Fire & Life Safety Concepts LLC, in Wilton, Conn. “Anywhere there are fuel-fired appliances being used where you have the potential for carbon monoxide to build up, you should have CO detection.”

The issue has taken on tragic significance in light of the death of Jeffrey Williams, an 11-year-old boy who died while staying at the Best Western Blue Ridge Plaza in Boone, N.C. According to NBC Charlotte, the local health department has determined that carbon monoxide was present in the room and that Williams died of asphyxiation.

According to the Charlotte News & Observer, the second-floor room is directly above a room that houses the natural-gas heater for the hotel pool.

A March 6th inspection of the pool by the Appalachian District Health Department found several violations, documents obtained by NBC News show. According to the inspection report, the "chemical/equipment room is required to have natural cross ventilation or forced air ventilation. This needs to be corrected asap."

However the Health Department issued a statement today stating that, "The violation noted relates to ventilation of equipment rooms to provide worker safety only for handling pool chemicals in a semi-confined space. Ventilation of any combustion gases from appliances is not part of the health department pool inspection."

This isn't the first time this death by asphyxiation happened in this same room, in this same hotel. Newly obtained blood tests show that Daryl Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Jenkins, 72, of Longview, Wash., died in room 225 at the Best Western in April from asphyxia caused by CO poisoning, Boone police Sgt. Shane Robbins said at a news conference Monday.

The hotel continued to rent out room 225 after the Jenkins deaths and before their blood tests results had been received.

“It is simply inconceivable that the hotel would choose to rent the same room to others while toxicology results were pending related to the deaths of Daryl and Shirley,” said Mark Brumbaugh, the Jenkins' attorney, in a statement. “It is our hope that the hotel will fully cooperate with the investigation into these events to avoid any similar tragedies in the future.”

Through its attorney, the independently owned and operated hotel released a statement to NBC News saying, "The health and safety of guests who stay at our hotel is our number one priority. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of those involved. We are cooperating fully with authorities who are investigating this truly tragic incident. The hotel will remain closed as we work closely with authorities to address any issues identified and authorities declare the hotel cleared for occupancy. "

Known as the “silent killer,” carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas found in combustion fumes that can build up in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces. Common symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and confusion. People who are sleeping can die from CO poisoning before experiencing any symptoms.

About 400 Americans die each year from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For travelers, the incidents in Boone underscore that while CO detectors are required in all new homes in 27 states, North Carolina among them, few states require hotels to install them. Fire alarms are required in a hotels. According to Panagiotopoulos, some hotel companies are getting proactive and installing carbon monoxide detectors, but they remain the exception rather than the rule.

Nevertheless, CO-related incidents remain so rare that they’re not necessarily foreseeable, says Peter Tomaras of Apollo Hotel Consultancy.

“Hotels have a legal duty to take all reasonable steps to eliminate hazards and protect their guests, but an unexpected hazard is not foreseeable,” Tomaras told NBC News. “Carbon monoxide poisoning is as rare as Legionnaires’ Disease — probably even more rare.”

Rarity aside, Panagiotopoulos still advises travelers to take adequate precautions as long as carbon monoxide alarms aren’t required equipment.

“Always have some ventilation; open a window if you can,” he told NBC News. “With the exception of carrying your own CO alarm — which isn’t the worst idea in the world — there’s not much else you can do.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.