Two dead, dozens sickened trying to keep warm
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This weekend's heavy snowstorm turned deadly as people scrambling to replace lost electrical service by using generators or other heat sources were overcome with carbon monoxide poisoning.
A McKeesport father and daughter died early Sunday of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, and more than two dozen others were overcome by fumes.
"The common thread was people using generators or heating devices to make up for lost electricity," said Dr. Donald M. Yealy, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC Health System's departments of emergency medicine.
Between Saturday and Sunday, Dr. Yealy said more than two dozen people were treated for poisoning by carbon monoxide -- a gas that is tasteless, colorless and odorless.
And three more victims were seen in the emergency department at Allegheny General Hospital, said Stephanie Waite, a spokeswoman for the West Penn Allegheny Health System.
An investigator with the Allegheny County medical examiner's office said the suspected cause of death for George Mateya, 60, and his daughter, Joelle Mateya, 19, was carbon monoxide poisoning. Their bodies were found early Sunday morning.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, carbon monoxide is a byproduct of combustion. Fumes are produced as the exhaust emission from the burning of such fuels as natural gas, wood and coal. The less complete the burning, the more carbon monoxide is generated. The levels become toxic in an unventilated area or when generated by a faulty device.
The highest concentration of victims were seen at UPMC Presbyterian, where 17 people were treated between Saturday and Sunday. At least another dozen came from other facilities within the UPMC system throughout Western Pennsylvania, Dr. Yealy said.
The beginning signs of carbon monoxide sickness are common, sometimes complicating an immediate diagnoses: "There's a general sensation of not feeling well with a mild headache," the doctor said.
As the poisoning progresses, the headache becomes more severe, as does the nausea. Ultimately, the victim will pass out and, if untreated, die.
If there is anything good to say about carbon monoxide poisoning, it's that the treatment is a simple one, if the problem is caught early enough.
"Stepping outside will do it," Dr. Yealy said. Or opening a window.
For the most serious cases, the course of action is hospital treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber where high-pressure oxygen is administered.
He advised homeowners to install a carbon monoxide detector and to be aware of the risks of using a generator or a combustion heating device.
"You need a source of fresh air and a generator should be kept outside the house," he said.
Another death may be attributed to a heart attack from shoveling snow.
The medical examiner's office is investigating what could be a third weather-related death. A 57-year-old man, Joseph Freyvogel, was found dead in his North Side home Saturday night, not long after shoveling a sidewalk at his sister's nearby home.
First Published February 8, 2010 12:00 am