Pa. Experts Warn of Carbon Monoxide's Dangers
Nov. 02--As temperatures drop and homeowners fire up their heating systems for the first time, some find out the hard way that those systems aren't working properly.
Burning or ventilation problems can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, cases of which typically spike in local emergency rooms after the cold weather arrives.
But this week the problems have been even more widespread, with a number of Berks County residents becoming ill from gasoline-powered generators and alternate heating sources during outages caused by the remnants of Hurricane Sandy.
On Wednesday alone, Reading Hospital treated at least a half-dozen carbon monoxide-poisoned patients, and St. Joseph Medical Center treated another, all related to blackouts from the storm. Most were from generator's, but one was from an outdoor grill being operated inside a home, officials said.
There also was the tragic case of Dick and Pauline Whitehead of Spring Township, who were overcome Wednesday by fumes from a generator in the garage attached to their son Kurt's house off Old Lancaster Pike in Spring Township.
Dick Whitehead, 86, was pronounced dead at the scene, and the coroner's office ruled he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Pauline Whitehead, also 86, was in critical condition Thursday in the shock trauma center at the University of Maryland.
Their case shows just how serious carbon monoxide can be inside a home, said Coroner Dennis J. Hess.
"Everyone should remember it's the silent killer," he said.
Therefore it's crucial for generators to be run outdoors because they can quickly fill a confined space with carbon monoxide, preventing those inside from taking in enough oxygen, said Dr. Charles Barbera, chief of emergency medicine at Reading Hospital.
"It basically suffocates the cells in your body," he said.
And because carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, victims may not realize that's what's causing their symptoms, such as headaches, weakness, dizziness and nausea, he said. Some don't seek help and become unconscious.
Emergency rooms can treat most carbon monoxide poisoning cases with a mask to force oxygen into the patient, said Dr. Marc Lewbart, assistant director of emergency services for St. Joseph Medical Center.
He said one-third of moderate to severe cases can cause lasting cognitive problems or other neurological issues.
In those more serious cases, St. Joseph and Reading hospitals have hyperbaric chambers to treat patients.
Fire officials advise anyone operating a generator, fireplace, coal stove or unconventional heating source to have carbon monoxide detectors, which should be mounted according to the manufacturers' directions and have fresh batteries.
If a carbon monoxide alarm sounds, those in the home should get out and call 9-1-1 so medical personnel can examine them and fire crews can check the home, Barbera said.
Homeowners should place generators outside -- not in garages with the doors open -- and away from doors and windows because fumes can still seep in if those openings aren't completely sealed, said Nick Voutsas, department manager for The Home Depot in Exeter Township.
Homeowners should also make sure to buy the proper gauge extension cords for the generator and the appliances they'll power, he said.
Despite the potential dangers of generators, consumers shouldn't refrain from running them because they can be valuable assets during a blackout, Voutsas said.
"They're safe if you run them correctly," he said. "Just slow down, follow the directions, think about what you're doing and be safe about it."
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