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Deaths revive debate over carbon monoxide inspections

Updated: March 1, 2013 7:38PM

Thirteen years ago, Michael Robb lost his twin sister and two nieces to carbon monoxide poisoning in a Back of the Yards three-flat that did not have the carbon monoxide detector required in most of Chicago’s residential buildings.

In fact, the landlords were accused of installing detectors after the fact to cover their tracks. They subsequently agreed to sell their seven Chicago properties, give the proceeds to the Robb family and never again own or manage rental property in the city.

On Monday, Robb was heartbroken to learn that a Rogers Park family had been forced to endure a similar tragedy.

“I immediately thought of my sister and two nieces. My sister died and they didn’t raise the fine. I said this is going to happen again — and sure enough, it did,” Robb said.

“No one ever inspected the building where my sister lived. In Los Angeles, they pro-actively inspect every residential property that is not owner-occupied every five years. That’s what Chicago should do.”

He added, “Is the city doing enough to ensure the safety of its people? I know they’re not responsible for each person. But, why do we have a Housing [and Building] Department in the first place? It’s a life-safety device. This is a life-or-death situation.”

Buildings Department spokeswoman Susan Massel said there was a working carbon monoxide detector in the basement of the West Rogers Park building. But, the Chicago Fire Department found there was no detector in the first-floor unit where the two women died, she said.

“We believe they should have had one [in the first-floor apartment]. It was sufficiently close to a ventilated source of carbon monoxide,” Massel said.

In 1994, Chicago became the nation’s first major city to require carbon monoxide detectors in most residential buildings.

The ordinance followed a three-year campaign by then-City Clerk James J. Laski after carbon monoxide poisoning wiped out a family of 10 in Laski’s Southwest Side ward.

Jesus and Gracia Orejel and their eight children — ages 11 to 25 — died in their sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning apparently caused by a furnace malfunction.

The new law required carbon monoxide detectors within 40 feet of all bedrooms in homes or apartments heated by “fossil fuel-burning” furnaces and appliances. Fossil fuel was defined as natural gas, coal, kerosene, oil, propane and wood. That covered virtually every heating source except electricity and solar power.

Apartment buildings or condominiums heated by “one main central gas-powered heating unit” were allowed to comply by installing a single detector in the room with the central heating unit.

Hotels, motels, large assembly halls and multiunit buildings were required to install detectors every 10,000 square feet. That’s roughly one per floor.

Although the ordinance included daily fines as high as $1,000-per-violation, City Hall conducted no major enforcement blitz. Instead, the emphasis was on educating landlords and homeowners.

“We’re not going to bang down every door,” then-Building Commissioner Cherryl Thomas said at the time.

“There will be enforcement as our inspectors go out looking for other violations, just as they already check to see if a building has smoke detectors. But if we have no other reason to be there, we’re not going in.”

The carbon monoxide detector ordinance subsequently stirred controversy when weather conditions caused the Chicago Fire Department to be inundated with false alarms — including 1,851 nuisance calls during a 24-hour period. That prompted Underwriters Laboratories to change standards for detectors.

In 2000, Laski called for stiffer fines and a citywide crackdown after Anna Robb and her daughters Elizabeth, 9, and Erica, 8, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a four-bedroom apartment at 4542 S. Wood.

The settlement that followed marked the first time in Housing Court history that the city had required a landlord to sell all Chicago properties.

“I just hope there’s a stand being made here against landlords who are not following the city code,” Michael Robb said on the day the settlement was announced.

“There are other women who have kids like my sister who are a step away from tragedy because of improper living conditions. It’s waiting to happen again.”

Laski’s get-tough appeal was ignored. He later became the highest-ranking city official to be convicted in the Hired Truck scandal.

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