We don’t usually think of power outages as an important cause of poisoning but it is. Electrical power has become such a necessary part of basic needs — think of light at night and refrigeration — that if it is interrupted for more than a few hours people will turn to gasoline powered generators to provide it. Apparently, though, the fridge and the light bulb are not the only necessities. Experience with recent disasters is revealing that people have new kinds of imperatives:
Hours after Hurricane Ike roared ashore in Texas, more than two million homes were without power, which left some scrambling to preserve food and others looking for ways to entertain children, a move that proved to be, in some instances, poisonous. Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found that 75 percent of children treated for carbon monoxide poisoning caused by gasoline-powered electrical generators were playing video games. (Science Blog)
Carbon monoxide gas is a colorless and odorless product of incomplete combustion. It combines with hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in the blood, twenty times more strongly than oxygen. If too much oxygen carrying capacity is used up, a person can die. Its symptoms are insidious and easy to overlook (headache, dizziness, confusion, nausea) and fatal cases aren’t rare — close to 500 a year in the US. In fact, monoxide poisoning is the most common cause of fatal poisoning in the US, and the relationship with power outages is also well known.
But the Texas experience is noteworthy because it is specifically a newly recognized pediatric problem, which is why it was reported in the June issue of Journal of Pediatrics. 20 of 37 carbon monoxide poisonings seen at the medical center were under the age of 20. Public service announcements about monoxide poisoning are usually targeted at adults, so these data suggest that children, teens and young adults might be another important target audience.
And stepping back from the specifics, a causal chain that starts with a tropical disturbance and ends with a fatally poisoned child is something to ponder.