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Dangers Lurk As Temperature Drops

With the winter season's first major storm comes a danger far less dramatic than the pictures of cars sliding on ice or people fighting to maintain their footing on icy streets. It is winter's silent killer.

It is invisible. It is odorless. But, it is as deadly, if not more so, as black ice. It is carbon monoxide poisoning. Each year hundreds of people die from malfunctioning or improperly used fuel-burning appliances.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is produced when fuels such as gasoline, oil, kerosene, or wood is burned. If an appliance fueled by one of these materials is working improperly or is used incorrectly, dangerous levels of CO can be produced, according to safety experts.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, three people died in suburban Maryland from CO poisoning caused by the improper use of gas-powered generators. There were other cases of near death by gasoline powered generators being used inside structures rather than in open-air environments, authorities reported.

LAST JUNE, a family of six in Annadale was treated for CO poisoning caused by a faulty hot water heater. A mother and her baby were found dead in their Alexandria home, the victims of CO poisoning.

"Our senses of sight, smell and taste do not warn us to the presence of carbon monoxide," fire officials in both Alexandria and Fairfax County warned. "The colorless, odorless and tasteless gas, a killer of hundreds each year throughout the nation, should be monitored through the proper use and maintenance of CO detectors."

Fire officials have offered the following tips that can help to prevent disaster from CO during the winter months:

*Have fuel burning appliances inspected by trained professionals,

*Don't sleep in a room with an unvented gas or kerosene heater,

*Don't let a car idle in a closed garage, and

*Install a CO detector on every floor of the home. These can be combined with smoke detectors.

Symptoms of CO poisoning include dizziness, mental confusion, and nausea. The key indicator of the threat is if several persons in a given environment experience these symptoms simultaneously. In such cases, open all doors and windows and get out of the house immediately, officials warned.

VICTIMS OF CO poisoning, taken to a hospital, often receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). It is a process by which oxygen is given to patients in order to speed the excretion of CO from the blood, explained Beth Visioli, media relation specialist, Inova Health System.

"Inova Mount Vernon Hospital was the first hospital in the greater Washington area to obtain this lifesaving technology," Visioli said. Developed in 1984 as part of an Undersea Medicine Program, it became a part of IMVH's Wound Healing Center in 2001. Since then, more than 20,000 hyperbaric treatments have been performed at IMVH.

"By providing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber, we are able to deliver two to three times that which is provided by just breathing 100 percent oxygen with no increase in pressure," said Jonathan Titus, MD, director, Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, IMVH.

"The use of HBOT can significantly improve a patient's chances of survival, and reduce the risk of further damage to the body," Titus emphasized. The availability of this equipment is particularly significant at this time of year when the risk of CO poisoning heightened.