Carbon Monoxide and Drowning Accidents

Drowning accident lawyers and first responders have been aware of an increase in the number of drowning and near-drowning accidents that have occurred in indoor swimming pools and, in particular, accidents that occur while a pool water heater was in use. In this post our drowning accident lawyer discusses a recent drowning accident at a motel pool in Niles, MI, and the potential liability of indoor pool operators for such accidents.


On the morning of April 1, 2017 an employee of the Niles (MI) Quality Inn happened to glance through a window that separated an indoor swimming pool and deck structure from a hallway. Upon realizing that several occupants of that area appeared to be in some type of physical distress, the employee summoned first responders. The responders were able to rescue the dozen or so accident victims but were unable to revive a 13-year-old male who died during transportation to a local hospital.

Based on their observations at the scene, including the fact that several first responders were also affected by an unseen substance, the emergency responders correctly deduced that the victims were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning and that the source of that gas was a malfunctioning swimming pool water heater. Investigators later estimated that the amount of carbon monoxide that was originally present was some 16 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum safe level of 50 ppm (“parts per million”).

According to investigators, there was no carbon monoxide alarm present in the swimming pool area nor did appear that such a device had been installed after construction of the swimming pool area had been completed. Additionally, the statements of the employee made at the time suggest that there was no lifeguard on duty prior to the accident.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide (chemical formula “CO”) is almost universally described as being “… colorless, odorless, and tasteless, but highly toxic…” at atmospheric concentrations as low as 35 ppm. Carbon monoxide exerts its toxic effects by inhibiting the uptake of oxygen(“O2”) by the hemoglobin molecule that is present in the red blood cells of practically all animals, including humans. Due to the unique 3-dimensionalshapes of both carbon monoxide and hemoglobin, once carbon monoxide attaches to hemoglobin the chemical bonds become very strong and extremely difficult to break. This explains the fact that carbon monoxide poisoning or “toxicity”, once it becomes clinically obvious, is very difficult to treat unless high atmospheric pressure oxygen is immediately available.

Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide toxicity

Carbon monoxide toxicity, although it can be difficult to detect, does produce a collection of physical symptoms that should suggest that carbon monoxide gas may be present. These symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Generalized weakness
  • Drowsiness
  • Lethargy progressing to stupor
  • Unconsciousness

While these symptoms can appear with any number of mild diseases such as a viral infection or influenza, the development of these symptoms in an area that is at risk for a buildup of carbon monoxide gas should be investigated at first opportunity after the affected individuals have been removed from the area.

Prevention of carbon monoxide-caused drowning accidents

As is the case with other types of drowning accidents, most drowning and near-drowning accidents are preventable if reasonable safety measures are taken. In the following sections, out drowning accident lawyer will review some of the more effective measures that are known to reduce the incidence or carbon monoxide-induced accidental drowning injuries.

Practically all indoor pool water heaters use liquid propane (LP) as their energy source because LP gas has a higher energy per unit volume and is thus cheaper to use than natural gas or electricity. Unfortunately, LP will also produce carbon monoxide unless an optimal fuel to air mixture is maintained at all times. There are electronic monitors available that will constantly adjust this mixture to minimize the production of carbon monoxide that, when combined with an exhaust vent, will reduce the danger of carbon monoxide toxicity. If such features are not installed in an indoor pool water heating system it could be taken as a sign of negligence.

Since the production and concentration of carbon monoxide is difficult to detect by human senses, it is usually necessary that an electronic monitoring system be installed to detect the buildup of this gas in areas where indoor pool heaters are in operation. Failure to ensure that a functional carbon monoxide detector is in use could be used as an argument of negligence on the part of the pool operator.

Likewise, a well-trained, on-duty, lifeguard can also be seen as a safety measure in that such an individual would be capable of noting the development of symptoms that are suggestive of carbon monoxide toxicity and could order the pool area to be inspected before a dangerous situation progressed. The failure of a pool operator to provide a qualified lifeguard could also be taken as an indication of negligence on the part of the pool operator.

Wrapping Up

In this post our swimming pool accident lawyer has briefly reviewed the potential for carbon monoxide toxicity to cause an indoor swimming pool drowning accident. It is the author’s hope that the information presented here may, in some manner, reduce the chance that another Niles, Michigan-type accident will occur in the future.