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Release: Oct. 17, 2002

UI health specialist warns of carbon monoxide dangers

Eric Greensmith, M.D., knows that this a dangerous time of the year in Iowa. Whenever the first hint of winter's chill is in the air, the hazards of carbon monoxide exposure increase significantly.

Carbon monoxide cases are the most common form of accidental poisoning in the United States, accounting for approximately 40,000 emergency department visits and about 800 deaths each year. Carbon monoxide injuries and deaths occur when levels of the tasteless, odorless and colorless gas build up in poorly ventilated spaces where a carbon-based fuel is burned.

Greensmith, an associate professor in the University of Iowa Department of Anesthesia, says carbon monoxide poisoning cases often peak around October when Iowans begin to heat their homes.

"Having your furnace checked by a professional is a key step in preventing carbon monoxide poisoning," Greensmith said. "We also need to keep educating the public about the safe operation of all appliances, heaters, fireplaces and internal-combustion engines, which are all potential sources of carbon monoxide."

The use of carbon monoxide detectors and alarms is also essential in protecting the public from carbon monoxide poisoning. The devices measure the level of carbon monoxide in the home or workplace and alerts the occupants if the levels begin to approach harmful levels.

When carbon monoxide poisoning does occur, the symptoms are often vague, but can include headache, dizziness and confusion. Carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin in the blood and interferes with the delivery of oxygen to the tissues. Specialists have recently begun using a treatment called hyperbaric-oxygen therapy to treat patients acutely affected by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Greensmith serves as director of Hyperbaric Medicine at UI Hospitals and Clinics.

"Hyperbaric-oxygen therapy is very effective at literally flushing carbon monoxide from the body," he said. "Not only does the technique help more patients survive, but it also reduces the potential long-term effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, such as possible loss of intellect or memory."

Hyperbaric-oxygen therapy involves placing patients in a special chamber and having them breathe pure oxygen under high pressure. This procedure helps force the oxygen into the tissues of the body. The technique is also used to promote wound healing and to treat a condition commonly referred to as "the bends," which can affect deep-sea divers. UI Hospitals and Clinics houses the state's largest hyperbaric medicine chamber and can treat multiple patients simultaneously.

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