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Safety's No Accident: A New Year's Resolution Has Us Buzzing about Alarms and Detectors

This past weekend, I began a home project that would improve the safety of our home, make our home compliant with Maryland state law, and achieve a New Year’s resolution. The project was going to involve 10-year sealed battery smoke alarms. As I’ll explain in a series of future blogs, the home project ended up having a couple of twists and turns, as often happens with DIY work. But rest assured, in less than half a day, my home is now safer and in compliance with the law. Resolution met, with three blog stories to write instead of one. The following is the blog story I expected to write.


Smoke Alarms Save Lives

The evidence is clear. Yet, what is also clear is that even though our fire departments remind us twice a year to check our smoke alarm batteries when we change our clocks, this does not always happen.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work on an important study. The National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) partnered with the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control to assess the effectiveness of a program to distribute and install battery-powered smoke alarms nationwide. In a report released in 2008, we found that, 8-10 years after installation, only about one-third of the smoke alarms were still operational. Thirty percent (30%) of the smoke alarms were present, but the battery was missing or dead.

Smoke Alarm Recommendations

To address this significant problem, we recommended in the Journal of Community Health (October 2010) that:

  • Future distribution programs install lithium battery-powered alarms with sealed-in batteries that last 10 years. 
  • Alarms come with “hush” buttons that allow residents to silence a nuisance (e.g., burned toast) alarm without removing the batteries or the whole alarm. 
  • Ten-year smoke alarms “chirp” after the battery loses power and offer the added benefit of reminding owners to replace ineffective units at their properties. 
Smoke detection sensors also lose effectiveness after about a decade; fire safety advocacy groups like the National Fire Protection Association have been educating people to replace their smoke alarms every 10 years

New Smoke Detector Laws

Eight states and at least six localities now require homes with battery-powered smoke alarms to install the 10-year sealed-battery units. The states include California, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oregon, and Wisconsin (multifamily only), as well as my home state of Maryland. New York City is one of the localities that currently has a similar ordinance, while New York State is working on regulations that will go into effect in 2019. On January 1, 2018, the Maryland law went into full effect, so smoke alarms with replaceable batteries should now be replaced with 10-year sealed devices.

As with many laws, the devil is in the details. For example, Oregon’s law applies to only one type of smoke detection sensor (ionization), while multiple states exempt battery-powered smoke alarms from the 10-year sealed battery requirement if the alarm connects with other alarms in the home wirelessly (e.g., a Nest). Those planning on buying a battery-powered smoke alarm should look into the requirements in their area

I ended up installing a hardwired smoke alarm in my home (more on that later). Even though I didn’t purchase a battery-powered smoke alarm, I’m so glad the CDC/NCHH research on these alarms is being translated into policy that is making the public safer. Other states and municipalities should consider taking up this important legislation.



Jonathan Wilson, MPP, joined NCHH in 1994 and currently serves as Deputy Director, Chief Financial Officer, and Director of Research. Mr. Wilson has authored more than 25 peer-reviewed research manuscripts evaluating assessment tools and interventions for healthy housing hazards. He also served as the NCHH representative to the federal Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention from 2004 to 2010. He came to NCHH with a background in nonprofit housing development and a Master of Public Policy from Duke University.

Introducing NCHH's Healthy Housing Fact Sheets: EPA Region 1

Think about your home community. What makes it special? What specific challenges does it face? I’m sure, if given the chance, we could all go on at length about the individuality in the places we live and work. Those of us doing policy work at national organizations spend much of our time focused on the big picture, but the healthy housing needs of each state are unique and varied. We are far more effective as an advocacy community when we remember to take advantage of the perspective and challenges each state brings.

That’s why the National Center for Healthy Housing has created 53 state healthy housing profiles – including the District of Columbia and an overview of the whole U.S. – for use by policy makers and advocates across the country. Each fact sheet offers eight statistics about the healthy housing situation in each state, covering topics including asthma prevalence and financial burden, childhood lead poisoning numbers and age of housing, radon levels, carbon monoxide fatalities, and unintentional falls among older adults. The fact sheets also tell you which of 11 programs at CDCHUD, and EPA are currently funding your state efforts. Most information was found from federal or state governments, and each fact is hyperlinked back to the source material.

EPA Region 1

Throughout 2018, we’re posting highlights of our state fact sheets by EPA region, one region per month. In January, we’re starting off with EPA Region 1: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

  • It’s well known among the healthy housing community that the Northeast typically has older housing stock than other parts of the country, and that is one of the first things that sticks out among these six states. Between 55% and 73% of housing in each state was built before lead paint was outlawed in 1978; 20-30% was built before 1940.
  • In 2015, the combined regional total of blood lead level tests over 5 µg/dL, the CDC action level, was 9,148. Forty percent (40%) of New Hampshire children are estimated to have had elevated blood lead levels at some point in their lives.
  • The region also shares high predicted and tested radon levels. In Connecticut, one in five homes has elevated radon; in Maine and New Hampshire, this number is nearly one in three. An estimated 628 cases of radon-related lung cancer occur in Massachusetts each year.
  • Rhode Island has the highest proportion of residents 85 and older in the U.S. at 15.8%, and nearly one in four Rhode Islanders are over 65. Risk of falling is a particular healthy housing issue for older adults. For example, hospital charges for unintentional falls among older adults totaled over $630 million in Massachusetts in 2010.
  • Another medical expense that has proved costly to the region is emergency asthma treatment. In 2014, Connecticut spent $135 million on acute care where asthma was the primary diagnosis; in 2012, Rhode Island spent $21 million on asthma hospitalizations.
  • The region also boasts some healthy housing milestones. Vermont was the first state to lower its definition of elevated blood lead levels to 5 µg/dL. This legislation was passed in 2008.
  • Maine was one of 14 states and localities that benefited from the additional funding for CDC’s Lead Poisoning Prevention program passed in December 2016.

Other NCHH Resources

NCHH’s state fact sheets will be updated annually with current information. For questions or comments, please email Laura Fudala at lfudala@nchh.org.


 


Sarah Goodwin joined NCHH as a Policy Analyst in June 2017. She previously served NCHH as a policy intern, helping to establish and run the Find It, Fix It, Fund It lead action drive and its workgroups. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies: Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government from American University.

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