The Poisoner’s Calender (No. 2)

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DENVER, Colorado – October 10, 2011 – An 80-year-old woman was hospitalized Sunday after carbon monoxide seeped into her home from an old heater. Levels of the gas were so high  that firefighters had to wear protective breathing gear to rescue her.

So I know this makes me sound a little twisted – and I have noticed that some people do tend to sidle away at parties – but for almost two years now, I’ve been tracking Google alerts on the subject of poison and poisoning. It’s a habit that began when my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, was published in 2010. As that story took place mostly in the 1920s, I found myself wondering about today – about the chemical web that we continue to navigate, about the poisons that we continue to use (and sometimes abuse). About how far we’d come, I suppose, in the 70-odd years since the the first forensic medicine program was established in the United States in 1934.

FRISCO, Texas – October 9, 2011 -  Fifteen people  from this small town north of Dallas were sent to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning Saturday after the gas seeped into a hair salon from a loose heater vent. Most of those sickened were high school girls visiting the salon to get ready for a Prom night dance.

We don’t poison in the free-handed manner of the early 20th century – thankfully. We’ve moved on from the days of confident poison killers, sure they wouldn’t get caught. We no longer have major American cities warning that “skillful poisoners can operate almost with impunity”, as New York City’s commissioner of accounts did in the winter of 1915. That doesn’t mean that we’ve left the age of homicidal poisoners entirely behind.

COAL TOWNSHIP, Pa – October 4, 2011 -  An elderly couple and their 43-year-old daughter were found dead in their apartment after co-workers began to worry when the younger woman failed to show up for work. Police said all three were killed by carbon monoxide seeping into their home from a faulty gas heater.

This week, for instance, a South African woman was arrested for killing her three-month-old  daughter by mixing a pesticide into her cereal. Last week, a New York state man tried to kill both himself and his daughter with ammonium chloride, a toxic compound found in household fire-extinguishers. Last month, a Utah woman was charged with trying to kill a former roommate by stirring antifreeze (which contains the poison, ethylene glycol) into a fruit smoothie. We haven’t entirely left behind our poison paranoia either. In August, a San Diego man stabbed his wife after deciding that she was trying to poison him, slashing his daughter and son-in-law as they rushed to the mother’s defense.

CAPE CORAL, Fla – September  27, 2011 – A 76-six-year old woman died and her husband was hospitalized due to carbon monoxide poisoning, after she left the car running in the garage after she returned from some late evening errands.

More often than we poison each other, though, we poison each other’s pets.  Cats. More cats. More cats. Oh, and more cats, although these just represent a scatter of the cases that jam my mailbox. Not to mention dogs.  More dogs. Way too many dogs. Not to mention wild birds, wild elephants, lions,  horses…I keep promising myself I’ll do a full post on this subject and but reading the stories always leads to the moment when I’m out the door and walking off a clouding case of depression.

CLEMENTS, California – September 20, 2011 – A grandfather and his 14-year-old granddaughter were found dead in their horse-trailer-camper this weekend, both killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Rescuers said they had been cooking inside on a charcoal grill.

I don’t mean to give you the impression that all poisonings are homicidal or deliberate. Most are accidental – an encounter with the wrong container, a malfunctioning piece of equipment, a genuine mistake. According to the Journal of Pediatrics, the accidental poisoning of children by prescription drugs rose 22 percent between 2001 and 2008. We use more of them is all; there’s more opportunities for kids to pick up a container from a bedroom dresser or kitchen counter.

We worry so much about exotic chemical exposures that I can get 44 million hits on Google if I type in the phrase “chemical free”, leading me down the path where dwells such improbable ideas as a “chemical-free bug repellent” or a “mattress that is free of chemicals” (although, um, containing latex among other materials.)  I mention this in case you feel the need here for some comic relief.

But my point is that we far too often dwell on the risks that aren’t and are careless with the risks that are.  What do we make of two teenage boys who are poisoned by anti-freeze because a family member had stored some left-over amount in a whiskey bottle? But as you may have already guessed, my real focus here is on the most routinely lethal poison in our lives.

CLARKESVILLE, Tenn. – September 19, 2011 – Five bikers at a charity event for needy children died when carbon monoxide seeped from a faulty heater into their rented camper during the night.  They were found dead in the morning by other friends gathered for the Bikers Who Care festival.

You’ll notice by the title of this post that is the second Poisoner’s Calendar post to appear on Speakeasy Science; the first appeared last fall. You’ll also find that they have a remarkably – okay – identical structure. That’s because of all the poisonous tales that come my way, carbon monoxide remains the perpetual murderous star of the story.  The U.S. government estimates that it kills about 500 people in this country annually and puts at least another 15,000 or so into the hospital. We’re hardly alone; a report released this week in the United Kingdom found a tripling of carbon monoxide related deaths over the last year.

I’ve picked a few random examples of carbon monoxide poisoings from the last few weeks, at the moment they seep in at about one or so a day. But that will change for worse as predictably as the weather chills. In winter, leaky furnaces and aging generators and the way snow seals off ventilation in houses combine to push the numbers up. Already you can find stories out there, with headlines like “Cold Weather Serves a Reminder to Check Gas-Fire Appliances.” Or at least install a carbon monoxide detector or two (above your head, by the way. Carbon monoxide is light. It rises to the ceiling, fills a room from the top down.)

And if such standard reminders don’t work, try this one:

MIAMI, Fla – January 8, 2011 – Services were held today for five teens killed when the poisonous gas carbon monoxide seeped into their hotel room, drifting from a car left running in the unit garage.

Don’t make me write this again next year.

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