Carbon Monoxide (CO) is an odourless colourless and toxic gas

Unheeded Fire Hazards in New Energy Efficient Buildings !!

2012-03-29:  The relentless pressure, within the European Union (EU), to bring a greater measure of stability to imported energy supplies … to reduce our overall use of energy … to be far more efficient in the ways we consume those lesser amounts of energy … to find cleaner sources of energy to replace oil, gas, and especially coal … to comply with ambitious targets on climate change mitigation … are all pointing in one direction with regard to design and construction.  We are forced to super-insulate new buildings !

Without many people realizing it, however, we change how fire behaves in a highly insulated building … especially when insulation materials are part of the interior finishes, not carefully buried within the construction.  [Even the old Building Bye-Laws in Dublin City permitted a cavity in a masonry wall up to 150mm wide !]   And, as usual, Building and Fire Regulations are slow to catch up with these important architectural developments.

Let me show you an example of a basement car park in a new hospital (which shall remain nameless !) … where a serious ‘fire’ problem has been festering since it was opened, and occupied, a few years ago.

This hospital could be anywhere in Europe …

Colour photograph showing the basement car park in a hospital. Click this photograph, and the photographs below, to enlarge.

Colour photograph showing the basement car park in a hospital. Click this photograph, and the photographs below, to enlarge.

The ceiling height in this car park is low … approximately 2 metres above floor level.  The ceiling comprises a 6mm off-white calcium silicate board of limited combustibility (for the techies out there – this board is not ‘incombustible’, and it is not ‘non-combustible’) … above which is a 40mm rigid phenolic thermal insulation board … all fixed to the underside of a concrete floor slab.

This phenolic insulation board is very efficient … and during the normal course of events, its job is to stop the loss of heat from the hospital wards and other areas above.  A cold concrete floor is also very uncomfortable for people, i.e. hospital staff, having to walk around on it for long periods.

Because the insulation board is efficient, and it is fixed to the underside of the floor slab … in a fire situation, let’s say that a fire starts in a car … the heat from that fire will be reflected by the insulation board back downwards.  The result:  the fire will be encouraged to spread much more quickly to neighbouring vehicles.  And so, in a very short time, we will have a much larger fire … and a much more intense fire … which will be far more difficult to control and extinguish, when the fire services eventually arrive on the scene.

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There are a Number of Twists in This Story …

     1.  For all sorts of normal reasons, there are service penetration openings in the car park ceiling shown above (some small and some large), especially in a hospital which is highly serviced … the overall approach to fire and smoke sealing in this new building is not the best … and workmanship is poor …

… which, together, all mean that it will be easy for fire and smoke to spread upwards into the hospital wards and other areas … in the event of a fire emergency.

In a hospital, not everybody is alert and mobile.  It will be difficult to evacuate some people … and it will be nearly impossible, because of their health condition, to evacuate others.  In order for a fire engineering strategy of horizontal evacuation to a ‘safer’ part of the same building to be successfully put into effect during an emergency … it is imperativethat the level of passive protection from fire and smoke provided is high … much higher, here, than in the case of an average office building, for example.  AND … it is criticalthat this high level of protection from fire and smoke is reliable.

In this new hospital building … the photographic evidence clearly shows that both of these criteria have not been met.

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     2.  Another twist in the story concerns the rigid phenolic thermal insulation board used in the car park ceiling … which, as the evidence also shows, is exposed to direct view in many places …

In a short, brochure-type document produced by the European Phenolic Foam Association (EPFA): ‘Phenolic Foam Insulation – The Ultimate Insulation System for the Construction & Building Services Industry’, the following is stated with regard to the fire performance of this material …

‘ Toxic gas emission from phenolic foam is generally limited to carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide with very low levels of other gases.’

However, in a report produced by the National Research Council of Canada: ‘Toxicity and Smoke Aspects of Foamed Plastic Insulation – An Annotated Bibliography’ … the following abstracts can be found …

  • Toxicity of Off-Gases from Phenolic Rigid Foam

‘ A reference sample of phenolic rigid foam was evaluated for toxicity of off-gases, using various test conditions in the NASA-USF-PSC toxicity screening test method.  Test results show that the response of this material to the various test conditions is similar to that exhibited by the majority of other materials previously evaluated by this method.  That is, animal response times generally decreased with increasing fixed temperature, and with increasing airflow rate under rising temperature conditions.  The authors suggest that formaldehyde is one of the toxicants present although the amount of CO produced at 600°C or higher was enough to be lethal by itself.

  • Toxicity of Off-Gases from Thermal Insulation

‘ Toxicity test data on the off-gases from various thermal insulation materials are presented in this paper.  Under rising temperature without forced airflow test conditions, phenolic foams exhibited the shortest times to death, while polyisocyanurate, polyurethane and polystyrene foams exhibited the longest times to death.  The introduction of airflow significantly reduced time to death, apparently due to a higher degree of oxidation and more rapid delivery of toxicants.  The authors conclude that under the particular test conditions, plastic thermal insulations appear to exhibit less toxicity than cellulosic board and cellulose insulation, with polyimide and phenolic foams being the exceptions.

  • Relative Flammability and Toxicity of Thermal Insulation

‘ Relative flammability and relative toxicity data are presented for 30 samples of thermal insulation materials.  There appears to be no inherent, necessary compromise between flammability and toxicity in the selection of materials.  Cellulosic and plastics insulations appear to represent significantly different combinations of flammability and toxicity hazards, and require different approaches when planning and designing applications.  Polyurethane foam appeared to be significantly less toxic and slightly less flammable than wood and other cellulosic materials.  Polyisocyanurate foam seemed to be more toxic than polyurethane foam but still less toxic than the cellulosic materials.  Polystyrene foam exhibited the longest time to death while phenolic foam showed the second shortest time to death among the group of rigid foams evaluated.

  • Carbon Monoxide Production from Overheated Thermal Insulation Materials

‘ Carbon monoxide yields were obtained for selected thermal insulation materials.  The data are presented and discussed in this paper.  Among the rigid foamed plastics, phenolic gave the highest yield of CO under a rising temperature and no airflow test conditions.  Polyurethane foams based on propoxylated aromatic amino polyol appeared to produce less CO than polyurethane foams based on propoxylated trimethylolpropane polyol.  Under fixed temperatures of 800°C without airflow test conditions, similar results were obtained for the rigid foamed plastics.’

  • Toxicity of Pyrolysis Gases from Phenolic and Isocyanurate Rigid Foams

‘ Special reference samples of phenolic and isocyanurate rigid foams were evaluated for toxicity of pyrolysis gases, using 6 different test conditions of the USF toxicity screening test methods.  Under rising temperature conditions, phenolic foam appeared to be consistently more toxic than the isocyanurate foam.  CO level appears to be the factor, which is twice as high from the phenolic foam.  The temperatures corresponding to the times to death indicate that the toxicants were evolved below 500°C for phenolic and below 640°C for isocyanurate.  These are in agreement with that of the University of Pittsburgh (UP) data.  At a fixed temperature of 800°C, there appeared to be no difference in toxicity between the phenolic and isocyanurate foams, although the former tended to produce more carbon monoxide.’

  • Toxicity of Pyrolysis Gases from Phenolic, Isocyanurate and Polystyrene Rigid Foam Insulation

‘ Samples of phenolic, isocyanurate, and polystyrene rigid foam insulation were evaluated for toxicity of pyrolysis gases, using four different test conditions of the toxicity screening test method developed at the University of San Francisco.  The test conditions were 200 to 800°C rising temperature and 800°C fixed temperature, each without forced airflow and with 1 L/min airflow.  On the average over these four particular test conditions, phenolic foam appeared to exhibit the greatest toxicity and polystyrene foam appeared to exhibit the least toxicity.

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As already discussed in an  earlier post , dated 2011-01-13 … we know that Carbon Monoxide (CO) is an odourless, colourless and toxic gas … and because it is impossible to see, taste or smell the toxic fumes, CO can kill before you are aware it is there.

So … it will be easy for Fire, Visible Smoke and Carbon Monoxide to spread upwards into the hospital wards and other areas of this building … in the event of a fire emergency.

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This Hospital’s ‘Fire’ Problem & Its Solution

The ‘fire’ problem in this hospital has been allowed to fester for a number of years because the issues shown in the photographs above are either inadequately addressed … or not addressed at all … in Ireland’s Technical Guidance Document (TGD) B … a document which is intended merely to present some supporting guidance for operating Part B: ‘Fire Safety’, in the 2nd Schedule of the Building Regulations.

Unfortunately, all parties directly responsible for this hospital debacle are under the very mistaken impression that the guidance in Technical Guidance Document B is prescriptive regulation.  This is a major error !   Furthermore … TGD B is fundamentally flawed … and it is particularly inadequate when the building type is a health facility.

To Correct This ‘Fire’ Problem … a Fire Suppression System should immediately be installed in the basement car park.  At the same time, if not before … ALL Service Penetration Openings in the concrete floor slab should be properly sealed so that, during a fire incident, the passage of fire and smoke and CO into building spaces above the slab will be prevented.  And … the quality of workmanship, on site, must be high !

An appropriate number of Carbon Monoxide Detectors should be installed in the hospital wards and other areas above the concrete floor slab.

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The ‘Institutional’ Problem

The procedure of having to submit so-called Compliance Reports with applications for Fire Safety Certificates, in Ireland, only confirms … and reinforces … the very mistaken impression in everybody’s minds that the guidance in Technical Guidance Document B is prescriptive regulation.

In the case of a different hospital … let me give you an example of a text contained in one such Compliance Report … submitted to an Irish Local Authority, sometime during 2004 …

Single Steps at Final Exit Doors

It is noted that Clause 1.4.3.4 of TGD-B is ambiguous vis-à-vis steps located on the line of final exit doors, i.e. as opposed to a condition where there is a step beyond the line of a door.  Accordingly, it is reasonable and appropriate to make reference to the current England and Wales Approved Document B (2000 Edition) for guidance on this issue in so far as Technical Guidance Document B is based on an early draft of the Approved Document.  It is noted that the UK AD-B in Clauses 6.15 and 6.21 specifically allow single steps at final exits provided they are located on the line of the doorway in question.  Furthermore, the recently issued Northern Ireland Technical Bulletin E (1994) also allows such steps, subject to the riser not exceeding 180mm.  On the basis of the foregoing, single steps are considered acceptable at the final exit doors subject to the riser not exceeding 180mm and the step being located on the line of the door.

This is mindless, incompetent nonsense … and it was accepted by the Local Authority.

How often, anymore, does anybody encounter a step … 180mm high, or of any height … at the front entrance to a new building ?   Building designers have finally understood the message that new buildings must be accessible-for-all … and a single step, in any situation, is a trip or a fall accident waiting to happen.  Now imagine the situation where people are attempting to evacuate an average office building, for example, during a fire emergency … and they encounter a single step at the final fire exit !?!   Now really stretch your imagination … and imagine where people are trying to evacuate a hospital !!??!!

FUBAR !!

The System is not only entirely dysfunctional … it is corrupt !

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END

 

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Carbon Monoxide (CO) Protection in Building Habitable Spaces

2011-01-13:  Carbon Monoxide (CO) is an odourless, colourless and toxic gas.  Because it is impossible to see, taste or smell the toxic fumes, CO can kill you before you are aware it is in your home.  At lower levels of exposure, CO causes mild harmful effects which are often mistaken for the flu (influenza).  These symptoms include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea and fatigue.  The effects of CO Exposure can vary greatly from person to person depending on age, overall health and the concentration and length of exposure.  Source: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USA.

Recent tragic deaths from CO Poisoning have occurred in Ireland … not only in the home, but also in a hotel.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide (CO) … unvented kerosene and gas space heaters; leaking chimneys and furnaces; back-drafting from furnaces, gas water heaters, wood stoves, and fireplaces; gas stoves; generators and other gasoline powered equipment; automobile exhaust from attached garages; and tobacco smoke.  Incomplete oxidation during combustion in gas ranges and unvented gas or kerosene heaters may cause high concentrations of CO in indoor air.  Worn or poorly adjusted and maintained combustion devices (e.g., boilers, furnaces) can be significant sources, or if the flue is improperly sized, blocked, disconnected, or is leaking.  Car, truck, or bus exhaust from attached garages, nearby roads, or parking areas can also be a source.  Source: EPA, USA.

 

If there is a fuel burning / heat-producing appliance in any habitable space, in any building … and if you have not done so already … you must do something NOW to check that you are protected effectively from CO Poisoning.  Shift your ass !

In order to improve energy conservation and efficiency in buildings … direct, natural ventilation from the exterior is still being actively discouraged … and buildings are becoming more tightly sealed, during construction or major refurbishment, to prevent unintended air seepage.  Generally, this has been causing a serious increase in Building Related Ill-Health (also known as ‘Sick Building Syndrome’) … much of which is still going un-reported.

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BRIEF CHECKLIST – IMMEDIATE ATTENTION

1.  Check that there is sufficient, clear, direct natural ventilation in any habitable space which contains a fuel burning / heat-producing appliance.  Next … Check that the terminal unit / outlet of the flue coming from that appliance is not blocked.  Then … Check the route of any flue from the appliance.  If, for example, a flue passes through another habitable space … that space must also be properly ventilated.

2.  Check that all fuel burning / heat-producing appliances are ‘fit for their intended use’ (this must be shown !), are working properly … and that they are regularly serviced by people who are competent to do so.  Paperwork is not a reliable indicator of competence !   Remember the problems with FÁS !?!

3.  Do not confuse Carbon Monoxide Detectors with Smoke Detectors !   Only install a dedicated Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detector for the task of detecting Carbon Monoxide.  And … that Detector must be shown to be ‘fit for its intended use’.  Read the writing on the outside of the box carefully … and then read all of the instructions inside the box !

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With regard to the issue of Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning in Ireland … Statistics Gathering is not reliable.  National Legislation concerning the installation of Carbon Monoxide Detectors in buildings should have been introduced many years ago … but this has not yet happened.  Furthermore … don’t hold your breath waiting for this much-needed legislation.  Based on past performance, technical and administrative officials in our relevant authority having jurisdiction, i.e. the Department of Environment, Heritage & Local Government (DEHLG), will prefer to wait before acting until similar legislation is introduced in Britain (England & Wales).

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I will just describe what I have done in my own house … in the kitchen …

[Smoke Detectors are separately linked into a monitored security and fire warning system.]

In every room where a fuel burning / heat-producing appliance is located … a Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detector is installed.  In the kitchen, for example, the Detector is fixed on the wall … at about head height, when sitting down at a table (appropriate for the normal pattern of use there) … and at a distance of approximately 2 metres from the natural gas kitchen range.  Control of direct, natural ventilation to the appliance is active … meaning, it always receives attention.  The usual kitchen clutter, e.g. clothes ‘waiting’ for ironing, etc., is never allowed to cover or block the Detector.  Everybody in the house understands the purpose of this product.

Colour photograph showing a battery-operated Ei Electronics Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detector, Model Ei206D, fixed (tamper proof) to the kitchen wall. Two of the hanging decorative plates are from France and Turkey. As for the third plate ... does anyone remember the Willow Pattern ? Photograph taken by CJ Walsh. 2011-01-12. Click to enlarge.

Colour photograph showing a battery-operated Ei Electronics Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detector, Model Ei206D, fixed (tamper proof) to the kitchen wall. Two of the hanging decorative plates are from France and Turkey. As for the third plate ... does anyone remember the Willow Pattern ? Photograph taken by CJ Walsh. 2011-01-12. Click to enlarge.

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About the performance of the Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detector in the event of a ‘real’ CO Leakage … I am comfortably assured, as I have known the EI Company in Shannon since the mid-1980’s.  At that time, I was the first architect in Ireland to install smoke detectors in any local authority housing scheme … and EI gave great technical back up and support, for which I am still very grateful.  I might add that those same smoke detectors were installed against the wishes of the local fire department.  A report on the whole test installation process was later presented, by Dr. M. Byrne, Engineering Manager of EI, to an International Fire Conference in Dublin.

The particular Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detector shown in the photograph above is a battery-operated Model Ei206D.  There are no heavy, smoke sealed fire-resisting doorsets in the house … so the sound level of the distinct alarm / warning signal [85 dB(A) minimum at 3 metres] is more than adequate.  A few years ago, this was an expensive item to buy !   Now, however, CO Detectors are widely available … and at a more reasonable price.

Very Importantly … Ei Electronics have also developed a range of products – Solutions for All – which are suitable for use by People with Activity Limitationshttp://www.eielectronics.com/ei-electronics/special-needs

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Harmful Health Effects Associated with Carbon Monoxide (CO) Inhalation … at low concentrations: fatigue in healthy people and chest pain in people with heart disease.  At higher concentrations: impaired vision and co-ordination; headaches; dizziness; confusion; nausea.  Can cause flu-like symptoms which clear up after leaving home.  Fatal at very high concentrations.  Acute effects are due to the formation of Carboxyhaemoglobin (COHb) in the blood, which inhibits oxygen intake.  At moderate concentrations: angina, impaired vision, and reduced brain function may result.  At higher concentrations: CO Exposure can be fatal.  Source: EPA, USA.

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Health Service Executive (Ireland) Factsheet

January 2011

Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning – A Guide for GP’s & Other Medical Professionals

Click the Link Above to read and/or download PDF File (375kb)

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