The Poisoner’s Calendar

BOSTON, Mass – October 1, 2010 – Boston firefighters evacuated a high-rise apartment building this morning after high levels of carbon monoxide seeped into the building from a basement boiler that was being taken apart. Five people needed emergency treatment.

Early this year, I set up a daily Google alert for news about poison. After writing The Poisoner’s Handbook, after much time dwelling on the poisonous decade of the 1920s, I found myself curious about how we compared today. Did people still regularly try to kill each other with poison? (Answer, yes). Was the public more aware of toxic chemicals in our daily lives. (Answer, yes, but not necessarily smarter about them). Did the same compounds that routinely poisoned people almost 100 years ago still cause harm today?

BIRMINGHAM, Ala – October 2, 2010 – A family of three were rushed to the hospital today suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. The victims were taken to a clinic with a hyperbaric chamber unit to help flush the gas from their blood.

My daily poison digest turned up a steady drumbeat of attempted murders – a woman who grew digitalis-rich foxglove in the garden so that she could mix it into a salad and try to kill her husband; a series of botched poisonings with household bleach, a man who laced his wife’s coffee with pesticide.

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – October 4, 2010 – A pair of long-distance truckers filed suit against Utah and Colorado companies for failing to maintain the freight truck they drove, resulting in a steady seep of carbon monoxide into the cab. The truckers report chronic illness linked to the long-term exposure.

Poison murderers still seemed to me to be the coldest killers, ever premeditated, wicked in their planning and execution. I’d written about a woman who killed her 17-year-old brother in 1923 by putting arsenic in his pudding. In late October, a New York woman was found guilty of killing her 21-month-old stepson by putting windshield wiper fluid in his juice.

WITCHITA, Kansas – October 6, 2010 – Four men sleeping in a van parked by a lake near Witchita died in the night of carbon monoxide poisoning. Authorities said they apparent left the engine running for warmth and a leaky line allowed the gas to seep into the vehicle.

But when it comes to chemicals, the greater danger comes from poisonings of accident, ignorance, carelessness, and – sigh – stupidity. After seeing numerous news stories on lead, I wrote a post about our long intimate relationship with one of our oldest poisons, called The Hour of Lead.

IONIA, Michigan – October 7, 2010 – A family of five went to the hospital today suffering from severe carbon monoxide poisoning. Family members said they’d been feeling ill for two days. Rescue workers pinpointed the leak as coming from a loose exhaust pipe on a furnace. There were no carbon monoxide detectors in the home.

Lead poisoning, alcohol poisoning, anti-freeze (diethylene glycol) poisoning, mercury poisoning, they tick-tock through our daily lives. But no poison shows up as frequently as carbon monoxide. No poison reminds us so frequently of our imperfections. We’re so used to the hum of our machines and engines – fueled by gasoline, or kerosene, or natural gas, or coal – we don’t really think about their most dangerous by-product. We don’t really remember that our devices with their incomplete combustion of carbon-rich fuels sets up the perfect environment to create carbon monoxide (CO).

BLOOMFIELD, Indiana – October 20, 2010 – An elderly couple found dead in their home today were killed by carbon monoxide gas resulting from a car left running in the garage. Authorities said the couple apparently didn’t hear the motor rumbling in the garage.

When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I might do a six month calendar of carbon monoxide poisonings. But there were too many of them. The CDC calculates that some 400 of us die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning and that the gas sends some 20,000 people to the emergency room annual. So, then I thought maybe I’d just flag every poisoning in a single month. But there were still too many. So I decided to just randomly pick cases from different states in the month of October.

GREEN BAY, Wisconsin – October 24, 2010 – Seven residents were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning traced to a generator running in the garage, used to supply power for lights and heat.

ELKRIDGE, Maryland – October 25, 2010 – Poisonous carbon monoxide gas leaking into a Howard County home sent seven people to the hospital. One remains in critical condition.

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona – October 26, 2010 – More than two dozen people were sickened by headaches, nausea and vomiting due to carbon monoxide leaking into a bank building.

We’re too trusting of our machines and our devices and, frankly, ourselves. I’ve written before about carbon monoxide poisoning, about a mother who killed her daughter and a young friend because she left the car running all night in the family garage. This isn’t as uncommon as we might hope. Moving into our current month, here’s a case of a New Hampshire couple who died last week after leaving their car running in the garage.

And I suspect I’ll write about it again because the cases will add up, the unnecessary loss of life will start making me crazy, and I’ll start issuing motherly directions to the world about installing carbon monoxide detectors, inspecting furnaces and generators to make sure connections are tight, and making sure that cars are turned off for the night.

CARMICHAEL, California – November 9, 2010 – Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States, local health officials announced as an introduction to their annual poison awareness week.

Don’t make me tell you again.

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17 Responses to The Poisoner’s Calendar

  1. Julie H. says:

    When I was a kid, my best friend’s family was awakened at 3am by Spot, their fat old rat terrier, barking frantically downstairs and would not stop. They made it half way down the steps from upstairs to be hit in the faces with the overwhelming smell of gas that was creeping slowly up to the second floor. Somebody hadn’t fully turned off the gas on the stove at dinner and it went unnoticed before bed. All 7 people were frantically opening windows and doors and stumbling outside to catch their breath. I didn’t appreciate as a kid how close they all were to not waking up. Gives me the shivers now when I think about it. Maybe everybody should get a rat terrier, too!

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  3. Deborah Blum says:

    Or at least a dog! There’s a great history of pets waking family members up in case of carbon monoxide poisonings. I should look into that sometime. We describe it as an odorless gas but I wonder if there’s a fine scent that dogs can actually pick up.

  4. Isn’t CO poisoning what killed Walt Disney’s mother? Perhaps its influence has even permeated popular children’s movies ever since.

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  7. Richard Blaine says:

    Hi, chemical pedant again. Antifreeze most commonly contains ethylene glycol, not diethylene glycol. The latter is a real chemical, but more expensive than the former. Both are toxic. As you may know, some mammals seem to like the taste of ethylene glycol, leading to reported pet and wildlife poisonings from casual spills.

    Chemical trivia: diethylene glycol = 2*ethylene glycol – H2O

    Sorry I haven’ t had time to comment lately, but I have been faithfully reading Speakeasy Science through its blog-host travels.

  8. Lowell says:

    Lynnwood, Washington – November 26, 2010:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2013533841_carbonmonoxide27m.html

    Carbon monoxide strikes again.

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    oner has some of the best science books in the world!

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