WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member of the Senate’s housing subcommittee, today applauded final passage of bipartisan legislation he co-authored that protects families living in public and rural housing from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning—the so-called “silent killer”.  The CO ALERTS Act was included in the final year-end omnibus spending bill passed by Congress.

“The CO ALERTS Act will save lives and I’m thrilled that it will become law,” said Sen. Menendez.  “No family should have to fear an invisible, silent killer when they’re supposed to be safe at home, no matter where they live, how much money they make, or whether they live in public housing or rural housing.  Carbon monoxide poisoning is 100 percent preventable, and this legislation will help protect children and families from needlessly dying in their homes.”

Sens. Menendez and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced the Carbon Monoxide Alarms Leading Every Resident to Safety—or CO ALERTS—Act, which ensures families living in federally assisted housing are safe from carbon monoxide poisoning by requiring:

  • Carbon monoxide alarms in units that have potential carbon monoxide sources like gas-fired appliances, fireplaces, forced air furnaces, and attached garages;
  • Carbon monoxide alarms in rural housing, managed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA);
  • HUD to provide guidance to public housing agencies on how to educate tenants on health hazards in the home, including carbon monoxide poisoning and lead poisoning; and
  • HUD, in consultation with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), to conduct a public study on requiring carbon monoxide alarms in other federally-assisted housing not covered by the IFC.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CO poisoning is a leading cause of unintentional poisoning deaths in the United States. On average, 450 people die and over 50,000 are treated in emergency rooms nationally each year due to CO poisoning. 

Known as the “silent killer,” carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and nonirritating gas that is produced through the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing substances, according to the CDC.  Symptoms of poisoning are generally non-specific and commonly include headache, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.  Large exposures can result in loss of consciousness, arrhythmias, seizures, or death.  Since 2003, 14 public housing residents have died from carbon monoxide poisoning—including four in 2019.

Last fall, Sen. Menendez joined health experts and housing advocates at the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJPIES) in Newark to explain the dangers of CO poisoning and the need to ensure safe housing.  NJPIES handles approximately 300 carbon monoxide exposures a year, some of which are serious or fatal.

While New Jersey is one of 27 states that require carbon monoxide alarms in private dwellings and one of just 14 states to require alarms in hotels and motels, HUD still does not require nor inspect for carbon monoxide alarms in HUD-assisted units, which include both public housing and private landlords receiving Section 8 vouchers.  The lack of CO detector requirements at the federal level still leaves residents vulnerable.

Sens. Menendez and Scott urged HUD Secretary Ben Carson to take action to address carbon monoxide concerns in public housing following the tragic deaths of two South Carolina residents.  In response, HUD issued a notice to all HUD and HUD-contracted inspectors requiring them to collect data to determine the prevalence of CO detection systems in HUD-assisted properties, and announced that the agency would provide $5 million in grants to install carbon monoxide alarms in public housing.