Three treated after breathing unvented fumes: BLIZZARD OF 1996

January 10, 1996|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

People who are confined in poorly ventilated spaces face an often-ignored hazard of winter -- carbon monoxide poisoning.

Three cases treated this week at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center tell the story.

Yesterday, a Baltimore couple in their 50s who had been using a gas oven to heat their apartment were treated in Shock Trauma's hyperbaric chamber after complaining of headaches. Monday, an 18-year-old Hagerstown man was flown to the hospital after his mother found him unconscious in the driver's seat of his car, which was idling in the driveway.

The car, with closed windows, was encrusted with snow.

"He needed be resuscitated at the scene," said Dr. Richard Kelton, who treated the three patients. "His mother was giving him mouth-to-mouth. When the state police came in, he was breathing on his own."

All three victims were breathing fumes in poorly ventilated spaces, a situation tailor-made for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is present in exhaust fumes. It prevents red blood cells from carrying the nourishment of oxygen to tissues of the body. Initial symptoms are lightheadedness, nausea and headache, but it can kill.

Dr. Kelton said he treated the patients in the hyperbaric chamber to prevent damage to the heart and brain that can occur hours after the initial injury, often at a time when the victim starts to feel better.

The chamber, 52 feet long and 9 feet in diameter, is an environment of high air pressure. Once in the chamber, a patient is given a small "head tent" that delivers pure oxygen to breathe. The combination of high pressure and pure oxygen purges carbon monoxide from tissues.

"Don't use your oven to heat your house -- it's very dangerous," Dr. Kelton said. "And if you have a carbon monoxide monitor in your house, it can be very helpful." Monitors, found at hardware and home-supply stores, sound an alarm when the gas concentrations are high.

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