Page, AZ – Carbon monoxide poisoning is one of the larger causes of fatalities on Lake Powell, if not the largest. Several fatalities and many more cases of people getting sick off of the gas have prompted the stewards of public lands to take a more proactive stance in preventing it and taking steps to treat it, if possible.
Dr. Robert Baron, the medical advisor for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and emergency services co-director for two Banner Health facilities in the Phoenix area, has been researching what he calls the sinister, silent killer for years. Baron held a training session with National Park Service officials at Bullfrog Marina on Friday to keep them up-to-date on possible indicators that someone is being afflicted.
As their medical advisor, I review all of the protocols and procedures that they work under and am responsible for making sure that their certification and training is up to date, he said. Part of the review of what they do, since Im not up here receiving their patients directly, I review all of their run sheets. Every time they take care of a patient in the field, they fill out a history of what theyve done.
Back in the 1990s, NPS emergency officials were dealing with unexplained episodes of unconsciousness, many involving children and most taking place at the rear of houseboats.
The common story was a 9- or 10-year-old kid was swimming around the back of a houseboat that was beached up on shore. The kid is in the water with a life jacket on, parents are watching it. The child goes unconscious, maybe seizes for a short time. The parents dive in, drag him back into the boat. Somebody radios for a rescue, and by the time the medics got there, most times, these kids would have regained consciousness, Baron said.
With these children showing no signs of trauma, drugs or fever, the cause of them going unconscious was baffling park officials, he said. Baron would track the children after they went home and find a couple of months later that they were still fine. It was during one of the training sessions that a medic hit on the possibility that emanations from the houseboats exhaust systems could have caused the children to pass out.
This seemed unlikely to Baron at first because he did not think engines would be running on the houseboats while they were beached. Park officials pointed out that there are still generators on the boats that power appliances and lights and are on all the time. Once they noted that the generators were located near the dive areas at the rear, Baron realized that there was a possibility that carbon monoxide poisoning could be possible, even if the houseboat was out in the open.
Unfortunately, it was confirmed in 1995 when a 12-year-old was found missing first, was hanging around the back of the swim platform, going back and forth in the water, didnt have a life jacket on. They couldnt find him (above water), but they finally found him at the bottom of the lake, he said. On autopsy, it was confirmed that he was carbon monoxide poisoned. That was the first confirmed case.
Baron thought the boys death was just a freak occurrence, but then he learned that boat users were accessing the cavity underneath the swim platform for various reasons. Another incident of a girl sitting on a jet ski being pulled by a houseboat, passing out and later dying proved that carbon monoxide poisoning was more of a reality than the doctor realized.
The girls death was the result of what Baron calls the station wagon effect. The exhaust exits the boat, and the square back of the boat recirculates the exhaust and draws it back into the boat, he said.
We had people getting poisoned at the back of houseboats, inside houseboats, Baron said.
Across the nation, there have been 800 confirmed cases of carbon monoxide poisoning related to boats on American waters. Out of those, 140 have ended with death. Approximately one in four confirmed cases have taken place on Lake Powell, Baron said.
The doctor noted that 28 people who died near a boat with an engine between 1990 and 2005 were classified as simple drowning victims. He believes that half of those people were exposed to lethal levels of carbon monoxide before succumbing underwater.
Were trying to let everybody know about this how frequent it can be, how sneaky it is. Its a colorless, odorless, tasteless non-irritant, Baron said. It can be out in the open.
Since health officials started documenting cases of carbon monoxide poisoning from houseboats, the houseboat industry has changed the designs of these crafts to send emissions through a chimney at the top of the boat and creating generators that reduced the emissions from 30,000 to 40,000 parts per million to 30 parts per million. Still, there are incidents that occur with ski boats and cabin cruisers.
A death last year involving an 8-year-old girl at the lake was the result of turning on a boats engine for only two minutes. Another incident gave five people carbon monoxide poisoning, and yet another sent 21 to the hospital.
It started with the children first an 18-month-old, then a 24-month-old. Then there were three young mothers with young babies who, in the middle of the night, were all vomiting at once, Baron said. Then they realized that maybe its not the flu going around.
Baron recommends that people who rent boats should find out where the exhaust is released and stay away from those areas at all costs.
If you are out on the lake in the middle of the day, and you start to get a headache, and you start to get nauseous, and you start to get a little lightheaded, dont blame it on being dehydrated or blame it on drinking too many adult beverages. Think carbon monoxide first, he said.
Those symptoms are some of the things Baron encouraged NPS officials to look for when they answer distress calls on the lake. Monitors were brought to them for use in detecting carbon monoxide.
We also told them that theres this fallacy that youre not carbon monoxide poisoned until youre cherry red, he said. If youre cherry red, youre dead.