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Blacksburg Poisoning Hits Close to Home

Virginia Tech student from Potomac among victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Six Virginia Tech students remained hospitalized after being exposed to carbon monoxide in their off-campus apartment on Sunday, August 19.

Five of the girls are from Virginia; the sixth is Carolyn Dorman, 19, a graduate of Walt Whitman High School. As of Tuesday, Aug. 21 she was still being held at the Duke University Medical Center and was listed in good condition. Elizabeth Burgin, 19, from Ashburn, Va., and Nichole Howarth, 19, of Chesterfield, Va. were also at Duke and in good condition. The three girls were transferred to the North Carolina medical center from Blacksburg, Va. on Sunday.

Kristin Julia, 19, of Ashburn, Va., was still in critical condition, while Kirsten Halik, 19, of Vienna, Va. was upgraded from critical to serious Monday afternoon, Megan Rowe, a spokesperson of the University of Virginia Health Systems in Charlottesville, where both girls are being treated, said.

“Patients in serious condition may have unstable vital signs and are considered acutely ill,” Rowe said.

Those patients listed in critical condition may also have unstable vital signs and may be unconscious.

THE INCIDENT OCCURRED just one day before Virginia Tech students were to begin classes and one hour before the school dedicated a memorial to the 32 students and faculty members who were killed in the shootings in April.

The five women were discovered in their beds in their apartment at the Collegiate Suites complex by a technician from a local gas company, said Capt. Bruce Bradbery of the Blacksburg Police. A resident of the women’s building contacted the gas company to investigate a potential gas leak, Bradbery said.

“All five women were completely unresponsive,” he said.

The five students, along with 12 other people, were taken to Montgomery Regional Hospital in Blacksburg before being transferred. Two other students were treated and released at a hospital in Radford and four others were treated and released on the scene.

“All of these people were not tied to Virginia Tech,” Bradbery said.

ACCORDING TO preliminary findings by Blacksburg authorities, the carbon monoxide poisoning occurred because of a faulty pressure release valve on the hot water heater. The valve stuck in the open position, Bradbery said, and hot water continued to drain from the heater. The lack of hot water caused the heater to continually refill itself with cold water from the outside source.

“Because that’s happening the thermostat is telling the gas to heat the water,” Bradbery said. “So there is a gas fire burning constantly.”

All four doors inside the four-bedroom apartment were closed, Bradbery said, which caused the air conditioning to turn on.

“The air conditioning created a negative pressure in the apartment and that pressure would not let the gas go up the chimney and out of the building,” he said. “So that caused it to collect in the apartment.”

The carbon monoxide levels were recorded at 500 parts per million in the apartment. Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur beginning at 25 parts per million.

“The levels were extremely high,” said Dr. Chris Holstege, a clinical toxicologist at University of Virginia Health Systems, where Julia and Halik are being treated. “To give you a reference, [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] did a study where they looked at what level of carbon monoxide a person could be exposed to. They said less than 50 parts [per million] over eight hours.”

BURGIN, DORMAN AND Holwarth were all given treatments in Duke University’s hyperbaric chambers.

“I was speaking with them while they were in the chamber, and all three said that they felt stronger and more alert shortly after the chamber was fully pressurized,” Stolp said.

There has been no official word if Julia and Halik received the oxygen treatment at the University of Virginia.

“The most important thing is to make sure the patient’s vitals are stable enough for the treatment,” Holstege said. “If a person lost consciousness, those are the patients who might benefit the most.”

The chamber is at three atmospheres (the Earth is only one atmosphere) and gives the patient high-pressured oxygen.

“The first thing is getting them high levels of oxygen,” Holstege said. “We want to get the body as much oxygen as possible to try and move the toxin through the system.”

AN INVESTIGATION into the incident is ongoing, Bradbery said, with the town hiring a private engineering firm to confirm police’s initial findings.

“We are going to find out what created this,” he said. “So we can make sure nothing like this happen anywhere else.”

Holstege said the tragedy has emphasized the importance of carbon monoxide detectors.

“We know that there are thousands of deaths as a result of carbon monoxide in the U.S.,” he said. “Everyone should make sure there is one in their home.”