Feb. 11, 1998 By Paul E. Ramey
GAINESVILLE, Fla.---Florida residents are just as vulnerable as their Northern neighbors to a silent killer often associated with colder weather - carbon monoxide poisoning.
"During the winter season we see a higher number of patients with carbon monoxide poisoning due to malfunctioning heating systems and the way that some people use heaters to try and stay warm," said Dr. T. James Gallagher, a professor of anesthesiology and surgery and the chief of critical care medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
"However, carbon monoxide poisoning is not only a wintertime issue," Gallagher said. "Probably the largest number of exposures are from cars. Usually, it's the last thing on someone's mind."
The leading cause of poisoning deaths in the United States, carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, toxic gas produced by burning any fuel. The main sources of carbon monoxide are motor vehicles, heaters and appliances that burn carbon-based fuels. Space heaters, poorly maintained chimneys and other heat sources can create a toxic buildup of the gas when used with inadequate ventilation.
Carbon monoxide poisoning kills more than 3,000 people each year and sends about 10,000 to hospital emergency rooms for treatment, said Ken Giles, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. "I personally think the 3,000 figure is somewhat misleading because it includes fire-related deaths," Giles said. "Most people who die in fires actually die from carbon monoxide poisoning. However, carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of fuel-burning appliances does kill more than 200 people each year, and these are deaths that could be prevented with carbon monoxide detectors."
More than 10 deaths have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning during the recent severe winter storms that caused widespread loss of power to residents in Canada and the Northeast states. Hundreds more have been treated for poisoning.
Gallagher said anyone who doesn't feel well and who suspects exposure to carbon monoxide should see a medical professional. "Through recent studies here at UF, we have found indications that carbon monoxide can remain in the brain and tissues, affecting memory, reasoning and other brain functions, even though blood tests do not reveal abnormal levels of the gas," he said.
Warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, nausea, sleepiness, dizziness and disorientation. In high concentrations, carbon monoxide can cause loss of consciousness and death. Many victims die in their sleep.
Anyone who suspects carbon monoxide should turn off the heater or source of the gas, go outside, get fresh air and seek emergency medical assistance immediately, Gallagher said.
When inhaled, carbon monoxide is quickly absorbed into the blood. It displaces oxygen by combining with the blood's oxygen-carrying molecule, hemoglobin, with a bond 240 times stronger than oxygen's.
Most people suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning can benefit from prompt treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, in which increased pressures help to deliver high concentrations of oxygen to the patient. The high concentration of oxygen speeds the separation of carbon monoxide from the hemoglobin.
The Jerome Johns Hyperbaric Facility at Shands at UF is one of several hyperbaric chambers in the state, and one of about 100 in the country that can seat more than one patient at a time. Since 1990, 175 patients have been treated for carbon monoxide poisoning in the Shands hyperbaric chamber, including 11 this November alone.
A breakdown of the November statistics shows heaters are a major, though not the only, source of winter carbon monoxide poisonings: five patients were treated for exposure to gas heaters; four were seen after exposure to a propane tent heater; one suffered from smoke inhalation; and one from a faulty car exhaust.
Sue Stearns, a registered nurse and certified hyperbaric technologist at Shands, said many cases of carbon monoxide poisoning probably go undetected each year.
"Victims often mistake the early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning for something else, such as the flu," she said.
Such was the case last month when Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura and four family members narrowly escaped injury after carbon monoxide leaked from their home's furnace. Chillura thought the flulike symptoms he noticed for several days meant he was getting sick. After a carbon monoxide alarm went off early on New Year's Day, he called fire and rescue workers, who found the problem.
"A $25 carbon monoxide detector could save your life," Chillura said.
The consumer products safety commission recommends having fuel-burning household heating equipment checked each year and purchasing a carbon monoxide detector for the home.
The National Fire Protection Agency offers these other safety tips: - Remove vehicles from the garage immediately after starting the ignition. Do not run a vehicle or other fueled engine or motor indoors, even if the garage doors are open. - Have your vehicle inspected for exhaust leaks if you have any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. - Always use barbecue grills - which can produce carbon monoxide - outside. Never use them in the home or garage. - When camping, remember to use battery-powered heaters and flashlights in tents, trailers and motor homes.
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