There were no carbon monoxide detectors in the northwest-side elementary school where more than 70 students fell ill last week, according to 45th Ward alderman John Arena. Credit: Andre J. Jackson

Having spent the last few days examining what led to last Friday’s calamitous carbon monoxide leak that sickened about 70 students and seven adults at Prussing Elementary School, Alderman John Arena has some simple advice for parents throughout the city: 

Make sure your kids’ schools have carbon monoxide detectors in them.

You’d think this advice is so obvious that the people who run Chicago Public Schools would already be heeding it.

But apparently it hasn’t reached them because Prussing had no such detectors in its main building until after the massive leak. 

I still can’t get over this oversight. I mean, over the years I’ve seen all kinds of boneheaded moves by CPS officials, mostly having to do with personnel, curriculum, and finances.

But as jaded as I am about CPS, even I figured they knew enough to install carbon monoxide detectors in every school.

Just to make sure everybody knows—carbon monoxide’s the colorless, odorless, and tasteless byproduct of burning gas. In this case, gas that’s heated in a giant boiler that’s used to heat Prussing at 4650 N. Menard.

If there’s a leak, carbon monoxide can make you very sick or kill you. Which is why the city requires that homes have carbon monoxide detectors.

In any event, sometime around 9:30 AM last Friday, students at Prussing started complaining of being nauseated and dizzy. One kid passed out. School officials called 911 and firefighters rushed to the building.

“When the emergency teams entered the building, their carbon monoxide detectors went off,” says Arena, who represents the 45th ward in which Prussing is located.

Well, it’s good to know that at least the fire department has some detectors.

“That’s when they knew there was a leak,” says Arena.

(I called CPS for comment. A press aide said he’d get back to me, but he hasn’t yet.)

On Monday, CPS officials came to Prussing for a meeting of the Local School Council, where they apologized.  
According to Arena, CPS officials told him there were no carbon monoxide detectors in the school, though there was one in the boiler room. But the boiler room is separate from the main school building.

Also, the carbon monoxide detector in the boiler room didn’t work, says Arena. 

In summation, the only carbon monoxide detector on the Prussing campus wouldn’t have notified anyone that there was a leak, even if it were working. 

Other than that—great detection system!

“We have a very old boiler—at least 80 years old,” says Phil Huckelberry, a member of the Prussing Local School Council. “We have been asking CPS to replace it for years. But, still, even if we had new boiler, it’s inexcusable that there are no detectors.”

Out of curiosity, I went to Home Depots website where I learned that carbon monoxide detectors start at $19.97.

Though, if I know CPS, they’d find away to pay hundreds of dollars for an alarm, probably by buying it from some company for whom former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett once worked.

I kid. But, really, we’re very lucky that no one at Prussing was more seriously hurt or worse.

“This was very serious,” says Arena. “I’ve told all my colleagues—make sure your schools have detectors.”

Arena says that CPS has installed several carbon monoxide detectors at Prussing since last Friday’s leak.

Let’s hope they included the batteries.