Ailments tied to low-level CO by researchers

Stealthy killer believed to cause heart, brain ailments

Leaks inside homes

July 10, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A 36-year-old piano teacher can no longer get through concertos and etudes memorized years ago.

A young mother and office manager finds herself struggling with simple math, and she's forgotten to pick up kids in her carpool.

And a Maryland fire official wakes up exhausted every morning, his head aching. He blames job stress.

All three, it turns out, were the victims of chronic exposures to low levels of carbon monoxide.

Long feared as a quick and stealthy killer, carbon monoxide - in long exposures, and in concentrations once thought too low for concern - is now suspected as the cause of significant, even permanent injury to the brain and heart.

FOR THE RECORD - The maximum level of carbon monoxide permitted in the workplace by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was misstated in a Page 1A article Monday. The correct current limit is 50 parts per million, averaged over eight hours.
The Sun regrets the error.

Its victims can be anywhere. In the suburbs of Maryland and across the country, carbon monoxide seeps into new tract homes when commuters warm up their cars in the garage, or is drawn back into the house from the furnace flue when someone flips on a bathroom exhaust fan.

And it is seen as a particular threat in cities like Baltimore, where financially strapped families may rely on a neglected furnace for heat or turn on the gas stove for warmth when the oil tank is drained.

"There is no question there are a sizable number - probably tens of thousands of dwellings - in the city that have potentially dangerous heating systems," says Baltimore Heath Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson.

David G. Penney, a physiologist and carbon monoxide researcher at Wayne State University in Detroit, says, "There probably is no lower limit for the safe effects of carbon monoxide."

Penney and a growing number of researchers suspect that this "occult," or hidden car bon monoxide poisoning, may underlie many complaints of persistent asthma, depression, chronic fatigue and chest pain. Behavioral and mood changes, or learning, memory and concentration problems may also be caused by carbon monoxide. Studies have also linked it to low birth weights and heart failure.

The health threats from these chronic, low-level exposures remain an unsettled area of research. Scientists working on the question agree that more studies are needed. But they're confident they're on to something.

"I feel it is a much larger public health problem than anyone has any concept of at present," says pharmacologist Mary A. McCormick, director of the Connecticut Poison Control Center.

Insidious poison

Lloyd Ceccato certainly had no idea his health was at risk from a gas he could neither see nor smell. But he knew something was wrong.

A piano teacher and performer in Waterbury, Conn., Ceccato was proud of his skill with a Rachmaninoff concerto or an Art Tatum jazz run.

But at 36, he found he could no longer get through his favorite Chopin etude. He couldn't remember a phone number long enough to dial it; his head ached, and he felt nauseated and irritable.

It would be five months before he discovered he was being poisoned. Carbon monoxide was seeping into his apartment from a first-floor neighbor's faulty furnace. It was too little to kill him, but enough to snuff out a small part of his brain.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is colorless, odorless, insidious and ubiquitous. It is produced by incomplete combustion, but faulty furnaces and motor vehicles, gas water heaters and dryers aren't the only potential sources we live with.

A gas stove or oven exhausts CO directly into the kitchen, even when it's working properly. So do the compact combustion space heaters now used by 13 million adult Americans, according to a 1997 survey reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And cigarette users inhale smoke containing four times the carbon monoxide found in car exhaust. Smoke from one pack can raise a home's CO concentrations to twice the EPA safety limit for outdoor air.

CO is the largest cause of poisoning in the United States. Each year it kills an average of 544 Americans in accidental exposures, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Another 7,000 to 15,000 people are hospitalized annually.

But experts suspect these acute cases represent a fraction of the true toll.

"There are probably many more exposures than we ever find out about," says Dr. Edward Bessman of Johns Hopkins' Bayview Medical Center. "The typical symptoms would be headache and nausea. So, folks will just chalk it up to some little bug."

When Matt Kelly went to the emergency room of a Baltimore County hospital in 1990 after five or six days of nausea and dizziness, he was diagnosed with an inner-ear infection and given antibiotics.

"A couple of days later, I was throwing up pills left and right. So I went back to the ER, and they gave me more pills," he says.

In fact, the flue in his Baltimore house had caved in, and the gas was backing up into his home.

Kelly wasn't diagnosed correctly until the CO got so bad that paramedics were called to rescue his roommate. Ten years later, at 37, Kelly still complains of memory problems. "I feel like I got a fried brain," he says.

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