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She survives ‘silent killer,’ experts issue warnings

An afternoon of watching college football turned into a traumatic near-death experience for Homestead Mayor Betty Esper.

Esper, 77, began to feel weak, woozy and dizzy while watching Saturday’s University of Pittsburgh-University of South Florida football game. Her thoughts were fuzzy. She threw up.

“I remember laying back on the couch thinking, ‘I don’t feel good here.’ I thought maybe I had food poisoning,” she said Monday. “But I didn’t think anything was really wrong.”

Esper experienced typical symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, said Dr. Kevin S. O’Toole, associate chief of UPMC Presbyterian Emergency Department and director of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s hyperbaric medicine department. Among symptoms are headaches, chest pain and shortness of breath. People exposed to carbon monoxide can pass out and die, O’Toole said.

“The symptoms are similar to the flu or food poisoning,” he said.

Between Oct. 1, 2009, and May 31, 2010, there were 31 accidental carbon monoxide poisonings reported in Allegheny County, according to county Health Department statistics. Twenty-four of them — including three deaths — were associated with heating systems or vehicles left running in enclosed spaces.

At least 14 people went to hospitals in Mercer County after being overcome by carbon monoxide Nov. 12 in the Golden Corral restaurant in Hermitage. A day earlier, nine people who moved into a Carrick apartment building were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes and treated at hospitals. An elderly McKeesport couple died from carbon monoxide fumes in their home Nov. 5.

“Carbon monoxide is often referred to as the silent killer,” said department spokesman Guillermo Cole. People with heart disease, lung disease, the elderly, infants, and pregnant women are more vulnerable to poisoning, but “really everyone is at risk,” Cole said.

With the game tied 3-3 at halftime, Esper brought Christmas decorations down from her attic and put them outside. She vaguely remembers falling on her front porch.

Then her downstairs tenant, Homestead Councilman Lloyd Cunningham, called to tell her his 28-year-old female friend “was kind of out of it.”

“I said, ‘Well, you know what, I haven’t been feeling good either,’ ” she said. They both called 911 when a carbon monoxide detector in the home began beeping.

Cunningham, 61, could not be reached for comment. He was released from the hospital Sunday. Esper was discharged yesterday about noon.

“When they say it’s silent, it’s silent,” Esper said. “I’m assuming that if I didn’t go out onto the porch, I would have sat there and finished watching the game. If I didn’t do that, I might not be around to talk about it.”

Additional Information:

A silent danger

• Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that is the by-product of incomplete combustion of fuels such as gasoline, kerosene, coal and natural gas

• Vehicles, small gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, burning charcoal and wood, and gas ranges and heating systems produce the gas

• Carbon monoxide poisoning most often occurs during heating season, between Oct. 1 and May 31

• Poisoning occurs because the gas does not allow enough oxygen to get to the brain

• Symptoms include headaches, rapid heartbeat, loss of hearing, vomiting, blurry vision, disorientation, dizziness, weakness, nausea and ultimately cardiac arrest

• To prevent poisoning, have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and inspected annually before heating season

• Carbon monoxide detectors are helpful but not a substitute for furnace maintenance

For more information, call the Allegheny County Health Department at 412-687-2243 or visit the department’s website .

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Allegheny County Health Department


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