BFP Magazine

Cardio-vascular Health

Carbon Monoxide Gas, Bingo Brain Syndrome

How a pickup truck can kill your child

By Dr. W. Gifford Jones

We're all aware that carbon monoxide exhaust fumes are too often effective when suicide becomes the only escape from life's problems. But a more terrible tragedy occurs when carbon monoxide gas unexpectedly ends the lives of helpless children. Hopefully this column will help to prevent such catastrophic accidents.

One evening a family was driving over Washington's Cascade Mountains in a covered pickup truck. At one point the parents riding in the cab decided to stop and give the children a breather. They were riding in the back of the covered pickup.

They discovered to their horror that two of the children had died without making a sound. The other two children were rushed unconscious to the Virginia Mason Medical Center. Here Neil Hampson, a respiratory specialist, found lethal levels of carbon monoxide in their blood. They were treated in a pressurized oxygen chamber, but only one child survived.

This is not an isolated case. Neil Hampson and nurse Diane Norkool report that of the 68 children they've treated for carbon monoxide poisoning 20 had been riding in pickup trucks.

Hampson says, "The pickups were mounted with hard-shell canopies in all but one instance. In that case the passengers had covered themselves with a tarp to protect against the rain and were poisoned."

How does this disaster happen? Hampson claims that when the side windows of a pickup are closed and the back window open, even merely a crack, a suction effect is created pulling exhaust fumes inside. This can happen in station wagons as well.

Hampson's study reveals that the pickups in which these 20 children were poisoned were between eight and 18 years old. But he believes carbon monoxide asphyxiation could occur just as easily in newer covered pickups.

No one knows how many non-lethal cases of carbon monoxide poisoning occur every year. But Hampson wonders how many times children climb out of trucks feeling sick and dizzy and parents blame it on motion sickness when in fact it's due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

This tragic story reminded me of the "Bingo Brain Syndrome". Several years ago the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that a 69 year old woman was admitted to hospital because of chest pain and mental confusion. Her son commented that his Mother had suffered from these symptoms in recent months. And that she smoked up to two packs of cigarettes a day.

Doctors also discovered that she was an ardent bingo player three nights a week. Further research revealed that the bingo hall was polluted with smoke. Of 310 players 304 were smoking. The diagnosis? Carbon monoxide poisoning.

Like exhaust fumes cigarettes also produce carbon monoxide. And when carbon monoxide is inhaled, oxygen is forced out of red blood cells and forms carboxyhemoglobin. As the amount of carbon monoxide increases these cells become starved for oxygen.

The "Bingo Brain Syndrome" can strike non-smokers. One woman spent hours every day in a small, poorly ventilated room while her husband smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day. She complained to her doctor of irritability, fatigue, depression and an inability to breathe deeply.

The normal carboxyhemoglobin level (CHL) of the blood is about 1.5 per cent. Doctors found this patient's level was 9 per cent! Her husband refused to stop smoking and two years later she was admitted to hospital due to a grand mal epileptic seizure. Now her CHL was 13 per cent. Her husband, having witnessed the attack, began smoking in the garage and two years later there had been no further seizures.

I'm convinced carbon monoxide causes car accidents. Federal Air Standards state that 9 parts per million (PPM) are hazardous. Researchers found that seven cigarettes an hour smoked in a ventilated room produced 20 PPM. This level is reached in an enclosed car after 10 cigarettes! And the carbon monoxide level for both smokers and non-smokers doubled within the first hour. This doubled again during the second hour.

Drivers with high levels of carbon monoxide in their blood exhibit a slower response to activated tail lights and impaired performance on some psychomotor tests. No one disputes that many car accidents are caused by drunken drivers. But who questions how many people are killed on the road by drivers with a high level of carboxyhemoglobin?

Never forget that carbon monoxide poisoning is caused by a variety of factors. To avoid needless deaths parents must make special arrangements for ventilation if their children must ride in the back of a covered pickup truck.

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He's been a ship's surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto. His Web site is: He can be reached at

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