Carbon monoxide taking a toll on snowbound without power

By Matt Zapotosky and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A07

The families were just trying to keep warm. Snowbound and without power in their homes, they turned to what seemed like a good alternative: gas-fueled generators.

The problem, fire officials said, is that the families ran the generators (and, in one case, a charcoal grill) inside. Pretty soon they were short of breath, throwing up and fading in and out of consciousness. The appliances they thought would keep them safe and comfortable were pumping dangerous levels of carbon monoxide into their homes.

During and immediately after the weekend's storm, at least 19 people, including nine children, were taken to hospitals to be treated for carbon-monoxide poisoning. There have been at least three such incidents in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Also in Prince George's, two people were found dead inside a car in Bladensburg with its tailpipe blocked by ice and snow -- a sign that it was not expelling carbon monoxide properly, authorities said. A third person was found under similar circumstances in Greenbelt, authorities said.

"Not only is it colorless and odorless and tasteless, people don't understand it," said Prince George's County Fire Chief Eugene A. Jones. "People just don't understand the consequences of breathing in something that they can't see, taste or smell."

Carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in the environment and red blood cells, preventing the cells from using the oxygen, said Maj. Dennis Wood, who heads emergency medical services in Prince George's. In well-ventilated areas, it can escape outdoors without much consequence, but when people start breathing it, it can have serious consequences for their hearts and brains, he said.

Fire officials advise buying a battery-powered CO detector for every floor of your home. They recommend calling authorities immediately if it appears that something inside your house is making you sick. They also say you should keep gas generators and lit charcoal grills outside.

"We cannot stress enough how dangerous it is," said Mark Brady, a Prince George's County Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department spokesman.

An incident involving carbon monoxide occurred Sunday night in the 7900 block of Hart Road in Oxon Hill, authorities said. Claudia Amaya, 14, said she was with eight family members when the power went out about 5:30 p.m. Because Amaya's 2-year-old brother was in the house, the family decided to use a gas-powered generator, keeping it running in the garage, Amaya said. Pretty soon, she was feeling odd.

"My chest kind of felt tight, like I couldn't breathe, and it was hurting, and my head was hurting," she said. "We called the ambulance, and he told us to go outside."

Fire officials said they recorded a carbon monoxide reading of 250 parts per million, far above what is considered safe. Amaya and four other family members were taken to the hospital, but all were feeling fine Monday, she said.

Others haven't been as lucky.

Just before 9 a.m. Sunday, Bladensburg police found two men in their 20s dead in a car in the 4200 block of 58th Avenue. They had no signs of trauma, and police said in a news release that the men "may have suffered from possible carbon intoxication poisoning while sitting in a closed, non-ventilated vehicle." Bladensburg Police Chief John Moss said "weather conditions" had blocked the car's tail pipe, allowing carbon monoxide to back up into the car.

Moss declined to identify the men because their family members had not been notified. Brady, the fire department spokesman, said emergency responders found a man in similar circumstances in a running car on Ridge Road in Greenbelt on Saturday, and authorities were waiting for a ruling from the medical examiner to determine whether carbon monoxide contributed to his death.

Perhaps the most unusual incident came Sunday morning in the Silver Spring-Burtonsville area, where a family in the 13600 block of Cedar Creek Lane tried to use a charcoal grill inside. Eight people, including four children, were hospitalized, though their injuries were not life threatening, said Capt. Oscar Garcia, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.

Fire officials acknowledge that staying warm can be difficult during a record-breaking snowstorm that left tens of thousands without power. But they advise residents to follow the manufacturer's instructions on generators and other appliances.

Even those whose family members have been hospitalized say they still might keep their generators around.

Hector Velasquez, 17, of Landover Hills said six of his family members, including a 2-year-old niece, had to be hospitalized Saturday night after they got sick from carbon monoxide. The family had borrowed a generator earlier that day when the storm knocked out power to their home.

Velasquez, a native of El Salvador, said he wasn't aware of the dangers of the generator. But when Tuesday's storm hits, he might be running it again. "If the power goes out again I'd use it again," he said. "But not inside. I'd use it outside."

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