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Fla. students poisoned by carbon monoxide

Firefighters tested the air in the students’ home and found it contained 200 parts per million of carbon monoxide

By Robert Eckhart
The Sarasota Herald Tribune

SARASOTA, Fla. — A malfunctioning gas heater was blamed for poisoned five students and a guest overnight Monday as they slept in a home owned by the Ringling College of Art and Design.

Matthew Sullivan, 19, woke up about 9 a.m. Tuesday and stumbled out into the hallway, dizzy and thirsty. He bumped into one of his roommates, who was coming out of the bathroom and felt just as lousy.

They realized they both had the same symptoms, and they knew something was wrong.

By 10:30 a.m. they were in the back of an ambulance, inhaling oxygen to fight the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

All six of the people who stayed at the home were treated and released from Sarasota Memorial Hospital on Tuesday.

Sullivan said hospital staff told him that his carboxyhemoglobin level was 30 percent, and that more than 50 percent is considered life threatening.

“I’m feeling great now. New sense of purpose,” Sullivan said.

Firefighters tested the air in the home and found it contained 200 parts per million of carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas called “the invisible killer” by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Air in a typical home or workplace has 5 to 50 parts per million. Accidental carbon monoxide poisoning kills 400 Americans a year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The home at the intersection of Guilford Lane and Old Bradenton Road is one of about two dozen the college owns and rents for student housing.

Ringling College spokeswoman Christine Meeker Lange said the college bought the home in 2008 and renovated it before renting it to students last fall. She said all the appliances, including the heater, had been tested.

It is the only student housing with gas heat, and the college did not install a carbon monoxide detector -- a device recommended by firefighters and required for newly constructed dormitories and hotels with gas appliances.

The detectors were not required in the home where Sullivan was staying, said Sarasota County Fire & EMS spokeswoman Susan Pearson.

Monday was the first day of class for Sullivan and his roommates, one of whom lives in a portion of the home that is sectioned off and rented separately.

Sullivan, who is from Boston, had returned Sunday after the holiday break and spent a frigid night huddled under blankets because the heater did not work.

The facilities crew from the college fixed the heater on Monday, he said.

During his brief stay in the hospital, Sullivan said he “texted just about every person I know” to tell them about the accident.

“I’m definitely really lucky. We all are,” said Sullivan, who believes he would not have figured out what was happening if he had not happened to bump into his roommate in the hallway.

“I would have just possibly got into bed after drinking my water and never would have gotten up.”

Other students in the house were unavailable Tuesday for comment.

Meeker Lange said the college will find temporary housing for them while the gas heater and other gas appliances are removed from the home. The college is also paying the students’ medical bills.

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