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Sea Sick: Carbon monoxide killed many after hurricane

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Sea Sick: by Keith Murray

Recently my home state of Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma. When you ask people in Florida what the leading cause of death was from Hurricane Irma, most will say drowning or wind-blown debris.

After researching the leading causes of death, I was surprised by the large numbers of people who died from carbon monoxide poisoning.  

What is carbon monoxide? Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a poisonous gas that you cannot see, taste or smell. Carbon monoxide exposure happens when you breathe in CO gas. You can be poisoned by exposure to high levels of CO. People with mild poisoning usually recover completely with oxygen treatment. Severe CO poisoning can cause permanent brain injury or  death.

Carbon monoxide is a dangerous gas created by engines. In the open, this gas is not typically a problem, but in poorly ventilated areas CO can be deadly.

In the case of Hurricane Irma, most of the CO injuries and fatalities were caused by generators. These generators were either running inside the home or close enough to the home for the gas to enter. Barbecue grills, lawn mowers, boat motors, fireplaces, gas stoves, propane heaters, propane lanterns, chain saws and cars also can cause CO exposure if you use them in poorly ventilated areas.

Early signs and symptoms

Here are some of the first symptoms of CO poisoning.

  • Blurred vision, dizziness or a headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Faster breathing than normal or trouble breathing
  • Weakness or muscle pain
  • Dark or red urine
  • Chest pain, or a heartbeat that is fast, strong or irregular
  • Confusion, fainting or seizures

Advanced signs and symptoms

These later-stage symptoms may be temporary or permanent, and they may occur 2 to 40 days after you have been exposed to CO.

  • Changes in behavior
  • Increased anxiety or depression
  • Difficulty controlling bodily functions: urine or bowel movements
  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing or learning new things
  • Difficulty moving, bending your arms or legs, or walking
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing or controlling facial muscles
  • Tremors, or shaking of your fingers or hands.

What to do after CO exposure

If you believe you have been exposed to CO and have CO poisoning, you should seek immediate medical attention. The doctor can perform various tests, including a neurologic exam, during which your pupils, memory, hand grip and balance will be checked. This test is similar to the FAST stroke test.

Additional tests include a blood gas test to check the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood, as well as a breath analyzer and an EKG. After determining you have been exposed to CO and are suffering from CO poisoning, your doctor may treat you with extra oxygen, with IV therapy or with a hyperbaric chamber oxygen treatment.

If you believe you are suffering from CO poisoning, you must seek medical treatment quickly as this may become life-threatening.  

As with most medical emergencies, prevention is the key. If you do not have a CO detector in your home and on your boat, you should install one today. If your CO detector is more than 6 years old, you should consider replacing it with a new one.

Trained as an emergency medical technician, Keith Murray now owns The CPR School, which provides onboard CPR, AED and first-aid training as well as AED sales and service (www.TheCPRSchool.com). Comments are welcome below.

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