Snowstorms and poison

Just before this weekend's stunning snow storm arrived in the Mid-Atlantic, poison control centers started issuing chirps of alarm.

I thought of them as chirps -  something like the peeping alarm calls  of  small birds -  because they sounded so faint against the other looming worries - adequate food supplies, airport closures, shut downs in government services.

And yet the fact is that more people have already been poisoned as a result of the monster storm than have suffered from starvation. The Washington Post today  reported eight people treated for carbon monoxide poisoning and in Pittsburgh, a man and his daughter were found dead in their home, apparently killed by the same lethal gas.

The DC-area family tried to keep warm by firing up a portable grill in their living room; it filled the room with carbon monoxide. Fortunately, the family members recognized something wrong and stumbled outside. In Pittsburgh, they weren't so lucky, falling asleep while a leaky portable gas generator, used during a power failure, flooded the house with gas. "Unfortunately, it's one of those things you can predict happening whenever there's a big snowstorm," said Dr. Bruce Anderson, director of operations for the Maryland Poison Center, told The Baltimore Sun.

We live everyday in a colorless, odorless, easily ignorable swirl of carbon monoxide.  Produced through the incomplete combustion of carbon-loaded  fossil fuels,  it wraps around us,  drifting from the exhaust pipes of motor vehicles, from coal-fired plants, from wood fires, from our backyard grills packed with charcoal briquettes. Fortunately for us, the gas is absorbed and diluted by the oxygen-packed atmosphere.

But there's too much about a big snow storm that can concentrate the gas. People, desperate for heat, put their backyard grills into their homes. Others fire up their rarely used gas generators or heaters. In homes, rooftop snow blocks flues and vents, sealing the lethal gas inside. And there's more. Snow clogs the exhaust pipes of vehicles, causing carbon monoxide to back up into the passenger area of the car. The National Weather Service warns, in fact, that if you are in a car that gets stuck in a snowback, you should run the engine for heat at intervals of ten minutes or less.  Some experts argue that you shouldn't the engine at all - better to be cold than inhaling a very risky gas.

What makes carbon monoxide so dangerous? It's strongly attracted to proteins in our blood that normally carry oxygen. As a result,  carbon monoxide pushes oxygen molecules out of the way as it muscles into the blood stream. The result is a chemical suffocation, marked by dizziness and confusion, in worse cases ending in coma or death.

We're so used to carbon monoxide that we're almost careless with it. We can't smell it or see it so we act as if doesn't exist. We don't always  hear those peeps of warning from poison experts. Do I think we should pay more attention - have a little more respect for one of history's most dangerous poisons. Hear me now: chirp, chirp, chirp.

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By Dennis Limbach (not verified) on 11 Feb 2010 #permalink