Carbon monoxide is killing public housing residents, but HUD doesn't require detectors

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By Suzy Khimm and Laura Strickler

COLUMBIA, S.C. — KinTerra Johnson and her three young children had to flee their apartment at 3 a.m. on a cold January night, or else risk losing their lives.

Two of their neighbors were already dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Emergency officials found dangerously high levels of the gas throughout the Allen Benedict Court public housing complex near downtown Columbia, where more than 400 people lived, nearly all African American, including more than 140 children and many elderly residents in frail health.

Johnson’s three children — 8, 5 and 3 years old — saw flashing lights surrounding the building.

“Open up, it’s the fire chief!” the firefighters said, banging on Johnson’s door. When they came in, her children burst into tears. “The kids were scared to see the guys in the Hazmat suits — they looked like monsters to them,” said Johnson, 27, a single mother who works in an insurance office.

The health and safety hazards are so severe that Johnson and her neighbors can’t return home. After the two residents were found dead on Jan. 17, inspectors found high levels of carbon monoxide and natural gas inside all 26 buildings at the complex, as well as missing and broken smoke alarms, exposed wires, roach infestations, damaged ceilings and a “high volume of rodent droppings,” according to a letter from the fire department obtained by NBC News.

For more on this story, watch NBC’s “Nightly News with Lester Holt” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET

None of the apartments had carbon monoxide detectors, local authorities found. In fact, public housing is not required to have them under federal law: While all rental housing subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must have smoke detectors, the federal government does not have the same requirement for carbon monoxide detectors.

NBC News has found 11 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning in HUD housing since 2003, based on local news reports.

The ceiling in Toddrica Smith’s bathroom at Allen Benedict Court.Suzy Khimm / NBC News

Public housing residents are particularly vulnerable to carbon monoxide. High levels of the gas are more likely to harm the very young and the very old, and most of the 4.6 million families receiving HUD rental assistance are elderly, disabled or families with young children. Acute exposure to the gas can cause permanent brain damage, among other long-term health problems, and at high levels it can kill in minutes.

But despite the clear hazards of carbon monoxide, HUD has been slow to act, public health experts and housing advocates say. HUD’s efforts to tighten federal carbon monoxide protections have been mired in a confusing patchwork of federal inspection standards and a slow-moving effort to reform them, according to an NBC News review of federal protocols and interviews with more than a dozen housing officials, industry groups and public health experts.