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Posted on Tuesday, December 19th, 2006 at 7:31 pm. About News and Politics, Ramblings.

Carbon Monoxide Madness, and Thoughts on Electricity

Ever since a dramatic storm blew through Seattle last week and over a million area residents lost electricity, there have been a steady stream of those with carbon monoxide poisoning coming through the Harborview ER. People – mostly immigrants new to the area – have been bringing coal-burning grills and generators into their apartments and garages, and then they are found later with various symptoms – anything from nausea/vomiting and headache to paralysis and respiratory failure. They are usually then brought to Harborview, and then the ER physicians send them to Virginia Mason Medical Center down the street to be treated in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber. The rule of thumb is that if someone arrives not requiring mechanical ventilation to breathe, then he will survive.

There has been tons of media coverage about the dangers of burning charcoal indoors or using generators in garages, but the irony is that those without electricity will not see the media coverage. Even the national media has begun covering this – such as here. Last night while I was on call there were two more cases, one of which required an ICU admission and the other which was discharged from the hospital. At least the numbers are decreasing from what they were over the weekend.

The heating issue aside, Evan and I were amazed at how absolutely dependent we are on electricity. Food in the fridge spoils, the oven and microwave are off limits, and of course – no television or internet. It’s dark by 4:30 in the afternoon, so then the challenge is finding a place with power or running down the flashlights trying to read. The traffic lights were out, so many of the intersections were chaos in action. Because no one could cook, the restaurants that did actually have electricity had waits of over an hour by 4 in the afternoon. Schools were closed. Many businesses were closed; even Microsoft lost electricity. I was concerned about looting, but fortunately there was not so much, although someone did crack the screen of the ATM across the street trying to rob it. A woman in our building was stuck in the electrically-powered elevator when the power failed. Seattle newspapers could not be printed because the presses stopped, literally. Because the gasoline pumps at the stations lost power, those that had functioning pumps were basically raided by eager customers and ran out of gas. We actually did not go to a Christmas party across town because we did not know what our gas situation would be. There are just so many things taken for granted with electricity – society, at least in a city, comes to a stand still without it.

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