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Ordinance would mandate gas checks

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday November 14, 2000

Last December – after the Nov. 24 death of Indian immigrant Chanti Jyotsna Devi Prattipati from carbon monoxide poisoning – Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek called on her council colleagues to mandate yearly tests for presence of the deadly gas in rental units equipped with gas appliances. 

Almost one year later, the item is back before the council tonight in the form of a proposed ordinance.  

It calls for an inspection of all gas heating appliances in every rental unit in Berkeley once every three years, except new construction that would be exempt for the first five years. 

The inspection cost is an estimated $50,000 annually, or about $12 per unit for each triennial inspection. Landlords will pay the costs. 

Stephan Barton, interim director of housing, said it is difficult to know the extent to which faulty gas appliances are a problem in Berkeley. Investigators concluded that the young woman who died last year in an apartment at 2020 Bancroft Way, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning because a vent was not in working order, having been blocked after roofing work was done to the apartment. Property owner Lakireddy Bali Reddy faces unrelated charges, but has not been charged in Prattipati’s death, which was ruled accidental. 

Two weeks after Prattipati’s death, a mother and her four children were reported poisoned by carbon monoxide in their apartment in the city of San Pablo. 

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced as a result of incomplete burning of carbon-containing fuels. Exposure to CO reduces the blood's ability to carry oxygen. 

Some 300 deaths occur across the United States each year due to carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the American Lung Association. Thousands of people become ill and seek medical attention. 

A class from UC Berkeley’s Department of Public Health has proposed doing a study of Berkeley homes to determine the extent to which faulty gas appliances are a problem in the city. 

A staff report on the proposed ordinance notes that at a Housing Advisory Commission hearing on the ordinance in October, the Berkeley Property Owners Association said its membership preferred scraping mandated inspections in favor of mandating that landlords supply each unit with a carbon monoxide detector. 

The commission rejected that proposal. Barton pointed out that the detectors can fall short in their objective. Some may fail to alert residents to low levels of carbon monoxide, which can cause ill effects over the long term. Others can produce false positives. 

If the council approves the ordinance, in concept, there will be a public hearing Dec. 12 on the question of instituting a fee to raise the $50,000 annually to perform the inspections.