Montreal

LaSalle elementary school where toxic leak sent dozens to hospital wasn't equipped with CO detector

The LaSalle elementary school where dozens of students and staff got sick due to a toxic gas leak last January was not equipped with a carbon monoxide detector — contrary to what school board officials reported at the time of the incident.

Maintenance reports obtained by Radio-Canada show École des Découvreurs only had faulty methane detector

A carbon monoxide leak from a faulty heating system at École des Découvreurs in Montreal's LaSalle borough sent 35 children and eight adults to hospital. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

The LaSalle elementary school where dozens of students and staff got sick due to a toxic gas leak last January was not equipped with a carbon monoxide detector — contrary to what school board officials reported at the time of the incident.

A carbon monoxide leak from a faulty heating system at École des Découvreurs sent 35 children and eight adults to hospital on Jan. 14. Nine students lost consciousness, while others were nauseous, vomiting and dizzy as a result of their exposure to the deadly gas.

The chair of the Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board, Diane Lamarche-Venne, said at that time the school was equipped with both a carbon monoxide detector and a methane detector, and those monitors had been inspected in mid-October.

"Everything was functional," she said. That same information was contained in a news release issued by the board announcing plans to reopen the school.

Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board president Diane Lamarche-Venne said at the time of the toxic leak at École des Découvreurs that the school was equipped with a carbon monoxide detector that had been functioning when it was checked in October 2018. (Radio-Canada)

According to maintenance reports obtained from the school board through an access to information request by Radio-Canada, a technician from Détekta Solutions did indeed inspect the school's heating equipment on Oct. 25, 2018.

However, the technician only found a methane detector, noting that it was defective and was not hooked up to a central alarm system.

Another contractor hired to do maintenance on the heating system that same month also noted the absence of a carbon monoxide detector in the building.

"I think there simply wasn't one," Sylvain Boisclair, president of the Centco Group, told Radio-Canada.

That information lines up with what the fire operations chief on site, Francis Leduc, told reporters on the day of the incident.

"There was a gas detector but not for carbon monoxide," said Leduc, just moments after the building was evacuated.

However, the Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board is sticking to its version of the facts.

"There well and truly was a detector in École des Découvreurs at the time of the incident," a spokesperson for the board told Radio-Canada in an email.

"The detector had been working" when it was inspected, she said, although she never responded to repeated requests to specify just what kind of detector she was referring to.

The school board turned down several requests for interviews, citing a police investigation that is still underway.

Radio-Canada has learned that investigation was opened following a complaint by a parent. The results of that investigation have not yet been sent to Quebec's Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions.

First responders said nine carbon monoxide-poisoning victims passed out, while dozens more experienced nausea, vomiting and dizziness. (Radio-Canada)

'I feel shocked': parent

Raf Piszcz, whose son attends École des Découvreurs, says he feels his son is in an unsafe environment. 

"It could have been way worse than it was," Piszcz said. "I feel shocked." 

Mounir Attab's daughter attends the school, and he works as a teacher at a different school in the province. He says it's sad to "hear and live this story." 

"Detectors have to be prioritized so this never happens again because it's dangerous."

Raph Piszcz, whose son attends École des Découvreurs, says he feels his son is in an unsafe environment.  (CBC)

10 teachers still off work

The first responders who arrived at École des Découvreurs on Jan. 14 detected a carbon monoxide level 25 times higher than the acceptable level — a situation that one risk management consultant said could have been catastrophic.

"Carbon monoxide is odourless and colourless," said Jean-Guy Ranger of Prudent Groupe Conseil. "It can be fatal."

Indeed, an exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide can have delayed or persistent effects lasting for weeks or even months, Dr. Maxime Roy, a medical consultant for the Montreal regional health board said earlier this month.

Roy was part of a public health team that examined 244 of the school's 276 students at an on-site clinic at the school a month after the incident, referring 99 of those students to their pediatrician for a further preventative check-up.

Teachers and school staff also received follow-up care. Ten of them are still off work, according to the president of their union local, Mélanie Hubert.

"The symptoms that were there a month ago are still there," said Hubert, "dizziness, cognitive problems, and on top of that, their weakened psychological state."

She said some came back to work after the incident, but have since had to take more time off. Others who were more badly affected are still too sick to work, more than two months after the incident.

Prior to the toxic leak on Jan. 14, no law compelled Quebec school boards to equip their schools with carbon monoxide detectors.

However, Quebec's building authority, the Régie du bâtiment, recommends they be installed "in any public and residential building where a combustible liquid or gas is used."

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge has since issued an edict, obliging all school boards to equip their schools with detectors and to make sure they're inspected annually.

Translated and edited by Loreen Pindera

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