Thursday, December 2, 2010
by Deborah Blum
Winter is the season of carbon monoxide poisoning, unfortunately. Every year about this time, public health officials and poison control centers sound the warning. "Carbon monoxide threat grows as winter nears," announced a news story from Maine this week. "Avoid carbon monoxide when heating your home," echoed one from Arizona. Still, not everyone hears these messages and takes protective measures. Far too often we see stories like this one from California: "Three hospitalized with in-home carbon monoxide poisoning." Or even worse, this headline from Indiana: "2 South Bend men die of carbon monoxide poisoning." So, as a reminder to us all that this is a very dangerous gas, I'm reprinting my favorite post on carbon monoxide from my chemistry and culture blog at the Public Library of Science, Speakeasy Science. Its original title was "Poison in the Night," and when you read it, you'll see why.
There it was, the sound of an engine, that low, steady grumble. The little girls heard it, and they told their mother. They were just 11 and 12. "You parked the car in the garage and it's still running," they said. But she told them they were wrong. "Oh, no," she said, "it's just the fan cooling down the motor. It's a big car, you know, and it gets hot."
Nothing to worry about. Not even worth looking at. So, the little girls gathered up some snacks and went to watch a movie, giggling the way you do with your best friend. They were having a slumber party at the 11-year-old's home, after all. The mother went to bed, sleeping away the soft May night. The car kept running. A Ford Escape, with a big gas tank to burn, keeping up that low growl in the closed garage, the rumble in the dark.
In the morning, the mother woke up feeling sick, dizzy, disoriented, knowing that something was wrong, and that the air itself was wrong. She reached for the phone and dialed 911, calling for help. She went into the garage and there it was, the running car. She turned it off, investigators say, threw the keys on the kitchen counter and stumbled into a shower stall to wait for the rescuers.
The house was quiet when the rescuers arrived and the air was wrong. They had to go back outside to gear up, put on their protective masks and oxygen tanks. They took the mother away and saved her at the hospital. But the little girls stayed behind. One lay on the kitchen floor, the other on the carpet in the family room. Still as death in that all-wrong air. The families buried them side by side in a cemetery. They were best friends, you know, in Boca Raton, Florida, where they lived.
The mother tried to make it different, to at first change the story. She was afraid; she couldn't bear it. The car was defective, Loretta Wilson told the police. She couldn't turn it off and she didn't realize that the garage vented into the house, too close to the family room where the little girls were laughing and watching that movie. But the police tested the car. It clicked on and off perfectly, like the good machine it was. Slowly, slowly they coaxed the whole story out. The way her daughter Amber had asked her about the running car, the way she'd turned away. Almost six months later, in December of last year, they charged the mother with manslaughter, or culpable negligence, in the deaths of the little girls, Amber and her friend, Caitlyn Brondolo, side by side now in the warm Florida ground.
If there had been a trial, there were too many things that a prosecutor could have said. He could have said that we've known, almost since the invention of the internal combustion engine, that fuel does not burn perfectly in such machines. That among the byproducts of that imperfection is the gas carbon monoxide: colorless, odorless, deadly. That it comes from such a simple formula, just an atom of carbon and atom of oxygen needed to make a CO molecule. And, that it kills simply, too. It just binds to the proteins in our blood that carry oxygen, muscling that life-sustaining gas out of the way. That carbon monoxide suffocates the body as it saturates the bloodstream. The federal government estimates that it kills about 500 people a year and sickens more than 15,000. We've known for a good hundred years or more that people die from letting carbon monoxide seep into an enclosed space. Not just any people, the faceless numbers, but friends and lovers, husbands and wives, our sons and daughters.
"Ultimately, this difficult case is about an assignment of responsibility," Palm Beach County state attorney Michael McAuliffe wrote in a statement for the public. "While no evidence exists that Ms. Wilson intended to harm the children, this tragic event reinforces the unwavering principle that parents and guardians of children have the paramount responsibility to protect their children and those in their custody."
The mother pleaded guilty on December 19, 2009, the day after she was arrested. A judge sentenced her to five years probation, psychological counseling, and community service through educating others about the dangers of carbon monoxide. The case itself was enough to remind anyone to install carbon monoxide detectors, check leaky gas appliances, keep their families safe. But the mother with her guilt and her grief and her daughter gone to the warm ground, no one could be untouched by that. She could help keep others safe. So they thought, so they hoped.
That is, until this summer drew to its end and they tallied the numbers in Palm Beach County. Last year, in all of 2009, four carbon monoxide poisonings, including the mother and the lost girls. This year, so far, 28 poisonings and three dead. One death from a boat left running in a boat house. Two dead from--yes, unbelievably, but yes--cars left running in closed garages. A 29-year-old woman who forgot to turn off her Lexus. An elderly man who didn't remember that his Lincoln sat rumbling in his garage while the air in that house went wrong. Six rescuers who went to his house were sickened by that poisoned air; the levels, so they said, measured 150 times above safe.
As if we are ever safe. Still, experts puzzled over why this was happening. Maybe, one said, we just haven't persuaded enough people to buy carbon monoxide detectors. The old man didn't have one, did he? Nor the young Lexus owner, nor the man with the boat. But, why not? Why not install some common-sense protection after a hundred years of knowing that we do leave cars idling, that gas appliances do leak, that carbon monoxide is a silent drift of poison in the air, and that people do die.
The mother could have answered that one, maybe. She could have told them that you don't need the detector because you're so sure that it will never be you. The poison gas is always destined elsewhere. You just know it will seep into someone else's life--odorless, colorless, unrecognized. So, when you hear that low growl of warning in the garage, and when the little girls ask, you just laugh, tell them it's nothing, send them off to watch a movie, and let yourself drift to sleep while the night closes in around them.Tweet