Friday, September 17, 2021

8 die in Md. home; CO poisoning suspected


Eight people died in their modest Princess Anne, Md., home on April 6, apprently due to carbon monoxide poisoning, the Baltimore Sun reports.

“It appears as though they were sleeping,” the paper quoted Princess Anne police Chief Scott Keller as saying. “Probably it was bedtime and they decided they needed some light and probably some heat. … Even though it was spring we were having some pretty chilly nights.”

The home had been without heat since March 25, according to a spokesperson for Delmarva Power. Except to prevent illegal activity or threats to safety, Maryland law prohibits utility companies from shutting off heat to homes between November and March, but it’s possible a stolen electrical meter was in use at the home. If that was the case, power officials could have shut off power after first filing an affidavit with the state’s Public Service Commission.

CDC: Keep generators away from homes

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people not to use generators for power in or near their homes. Doing so may poison the inhabitants of the house with carbon monoxide, or CO.

CO is an odorless, colorless gas and can cause sudden illness and death. “CO is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned in a furnace, vehicle, generator, grill, or elsewhere. CO from these sources can build up in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces and poison the people and animals in them,” writes the CDC.

To prevent CO poisoning, the CDC also recommends:

  • Servicing home heating systems, water heaters and any other gas-, oil-, or coal-burning appliances by a qualified technician every year
  • Installing a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and checking or replacing the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall
  • Seeking prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed, or nauseous
  • Not running a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open
  • Not burning anything in a stove or fireplace that isn’t vented
  • Not heating your house with a gas oven

The CDC says CO poisoning is preventable if the above precautions are taken. But if CO poisoning is suspected, you need to get some fresh air and call 911.

How pressurized fresh air helps

According to the New York Department of Health, about 200 people each year in the state are hospitalized because of accidental CO poisoning. About one-third of these victims are poisoned by CO from a fire and about two-thirds are poisoned by CO that is produced by fuel-burning sources. Many more people are treated for CO exposure in emergency rooms without further hospital care. Most CO exposures and poisonings occur when people are in the home.

CO binds to hemoglobin in your blood, and if too many CO molecules are bound to your hemoglobin, not enough oxygen can bind to the hemoglobin and be transported to your body’s cells. If your cells don’t get enough oxygen, they die. If enough cells die, you die.

Chemical affinity was best explained to me by a college professor who likened hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen around in your red blood cells, to a college senior walking into a bar to pick up women. Although the story is stereotypical—after all, all women are beautiful—he lectured that the guy will always go straight for the prettiest woman in the bar, even though his odds of getting anywhere are low. In the case of carbon monoxide poisoning (the pretty woman is the CO molecule), there could be 209 average-looking women (the oxygen molecules, and a much better choice for the guy) in the bar, and it won’t matter. Because of the guy’s affinity for the pretty woman, he’ll walk right past all the average-looking ones to spend time with the pretty one.

But when you move to fresh air—or, to a pressurized oxygen environment like the hyperbaric oxygen chamber at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where many CO poisoning victims in Maryland are taken—the CO molecules eventually get free of the hemoglobin and oxygen can bind.

With CO in your system, though, that’s what binds to the hemoglobin, because, as the National Institutes of Health tell us, CO has 210 times greater affinity for hemoglobin than oxygen does. Simply put, with CO in your blood, taking up all the hemoglobin, “less oxygen is available for the tissues.”

Getting the poisoning victim into a hyperbaric oxygen chamber is the preferred treatment in emergencies, since the half-life of hemoglobin bound to a CO molecule at 3 ATA (absolute atmospheres) of oxygen is only 23 minutes. Patients treated with pure oxygen at normal atmospheric pressure don’t recover as quickly and suffer more harmful effects of CO poisoning, such as headaches, irritability, personality changes, confusion, and loss of memory.

The hyperbaric oxygen also improves the chances that damage to tissues in the body won’t be permanent, as this story in the Daily Mail describes.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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