Cold water most likely was factor in deaths

Experts say hypothermia would have set in quickly in Patapsco at 44 degrees

Seaport Taxi Boat Capsizes

March 07, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Hypothermia, which could have been a factor in the deaths in the Patapsco River yesterday, occurs when the core body temperature falls below the normal 98.6 degrees and impairs muscular and brain functions.

The condition is accelerated by exposure to water. Water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, which is why it's so important to take off wet clothes when you're cold. The colder the water, the faster the body's temperature plummets.

The temperature of the Patapsco River yesterday was about 44 degrees, officials said. In water that cold, unconsciousness can set in within 30 to 60 minutes and death within one to three hours, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Hypothermia is listed as the cause of death for about 600 people every year. A reduction in body temperature by just a few degrees can bring on hypothermia. A body temperature below just 96 degrees can cause an irregular heartbeat, and the heart stops below 77 degrees.

Experts recommend for people who fall off boats into the water to climb on top of the boat if possible, as many people who fell off the water taxi did yesterday. Experts also suggest remaining still in the water or huddling with other people. Swimming or treading water can accelerate the loss of body heat by 35 percent. Other important factors include body size and the amount of body fat; the smaller the person, the greater the danger.

The first stage of hypothermia, when the body temperature is between 96 and 98.6 degrees, is marked by shivering and grogginess. The second stage, between 93 and 95 degrees, is characterized by a slower pulse, slurred speech and violent shivering. And the final stage, called severe hypothermia, is when the body temperature falls below 92 degrees.

In that stage, shivering eventually stops because the body decides that the contraction of muscles is not sufficient to stop its falling temperature, and energy must be conserved. At 90 degrees, the body enters hibernation, shutting down all peripheral blood flow and reducing the breathing and heart rate.

Death often occurs below 78 degrees.

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