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Silent killer lurks in the warmer months, too 

Campers and cabins might be the most popular vacation destination this spring and summer as more families stick close to home through the pandemic.

To help you stay safe while enjoying your tent, recreational vehicle, boat or cottage, our medical crews are reminding people about the risks associated with carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, the so-called “silent killer.”

“We saw an uptick of patients with carbon monoxide poisoning over the winter, likely because people are home more, or out in their RVs and camping units,” said Dr. Josh Bezanson, a STARS transport physician who is also an emergency and hyperbaric medicine doctor.

Sadly, he’s anticipating a busy summer, too, as more people head into the great outdoors. The risk of CO poisoning in the spring and summer months is just as great.

CO is a leading cause of unintentional poisoning deaths, killing more than 300 Canadians every year, according to Statistics Canada. The gas is tasteless, odourless and exposure can occur in the most unsuspecting places during warmer weather months, including generators, camp stoves, portable grills, lanterns and heaters.

When STARS responds to a request for a critically ill patient, we are often airlifted to the nearest hyperbaric chamber for treatment that can’t be provided inside the helicopter or on scene. For patients in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, they are taken to Edmonton’s Misericordia Community Hospital and treated in the hyperbaric chamber, where Dr. Bezanson works.

“The most important factor for these poisonings is time to treatment. We need to narrow the window of care for these patients,” said. Dr. Bezanson. “The sooner we can clear the poison from their system using the hyperbaric chamber the better, as it reduces the chance of severe long-term neurological injury.”

Other common sources of carbon monoxide emissions include heating appliances such as furnaces and gas water heaters, fireplaces, vehicles, cooking appliances like barbecues and gas stoves, and gas-powered tools including lawnmowers and snowblowers. 

Common symptoms of low exposure include dizziness or confusion, headaches, and/or chest pain. Higher concentrations often result in loss of consciousness, comas, and in worst cases, death. Over the winter, one of our crews responded to a tragic call in which a vehicle was found in the ditch in the snow with two people inside. The vehicle ran most of the night until a passerby called 911. 

While one person died, STARS was able to care for the other, who was found unresponsive. The plan was to take the patient to the hyperbaric chamber in Edmonton, but she responded to oxygen administered by our air medical crew en route. 

“We support their breathing, intubated with oxygen, which is normobaric oxygen flow as opposed to hyperbaric oxygen flow in the clinic,” said Dr. Bezanson. “The hyperbaric chamber is a giant pressurized tube, where we pressure dive people to the equivalent depth of 60 feet under water,” Dr. Bezanson explained, adding patients receive pure oxygen in an environment with higher-than-normal air pressure which helps the body carry more oxygen than normal to help detoxify. 

Misericordia Community Hospital has the only critical care unit in Western Canada for high exposure CO patients. 

“Sometimes when people think of STARS, they think of traumas or heart attacks and strokes, and of course we do that, but much of what we do is extending the reach of the health-care system for patients across the provinces,” said Dr. Bezanson. 

Tips for staying safe: 

• Install a working, certified CO detector near bedrooms; 
• Clean your chimney; 
• Don’t use barbecue or power generator indoors, including inside a tent; 
• Don’t idle car or run gas-powered equipment in garage; 
• Maintain stoves/fireplaces and have your furnace checked annually. 

What to do if your alarm sounds: 

• Leave the area immediately; 
• Call 911; 
• Do not re-enter the area. 

Source: Government of Canada 
For more information on how to keep safe visit nfpa.org