COHQ, Recently In The Press

Is Carbon Monoxide a Real Threat? Is Rick Mast
a Unique Case? I Asked a Real Expert!

By-Danny Zeeff

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After getting a crash course on Carbon Monoxide poisoning since hearing of Rick Mast's forced retirement, I decided to look a little further for an explanation and some tough answers to some tough questions. My Interview with David G. Penney, Ph.D. follows, but please allow me to preface it with some thoughts that have disturbed me as this story unfolds.

One result will surely be a cry of blame on Nascar, who should have had a "rule" to protect drivers from CO poisoning. I would answer those who think that a new rule for every possible scenario is the panacea for racing safety with a call for just one new rule. I would call it THE STUPID RULE. Quite simply, it would state that grown men doing something totally and obviously idiotic is against the rules. This is not meant to imply that anyone involved, including Mr. Mast who I have always found to be an intelligent, well spoken gentleman, is in fact an idiot.

However, consider this. Until quite recently it was common practice to send a car back out after a fender bender had compromised the exhaust system, filling the interior with Carbon Monoxide. We all learned by high school science that CO is a tasteless, odorless, invisible gas that is deadly when inhaled, doing irrepairable harm to the body and central nervous system each time it is inspired. So, when the driver begins to complain of CO induced distress, the crew chief should know beyond any doubt that the safety of the car has been seriously compromised, and the prudent thing to do is, of course, BRING IN THE CAR AND GET THE SICK DRIVER OUT AND A NEW DRIVER BACK IN AND GET IT OUT ON THE TRACK???????!!!!!! Don't laugh!! Cry maybe, because it used to happen all the time. I assume the reason it isn't such a prevalent practice any more is due to improved exhaust system design and manufacture that hopefully does what it is intended to do. Exhaust!

Does Nascar have to write a specific rule to address this situation? One would think the Stupid Rule would cover it, but apparently not. So yes, I'm sure Nascar will or already has drafted just such a rule.In fact, the Stupid Rule could have saved lives and rule book pages throughout the history of Nascar. Years ago, seat belts weren't required. They saved lives, to be sure, but some proud stubborn drivers said no thanks, until enough died that a rule was made. Then it was helmets, then fire suits, which were disdained because the driver couldn't roll up his pack of Camels in the sleeve of a fire suit, but which won favor with rescue crews because not only was there a heck of a lot less mess, but the drivers actually lived! More recently, the development of practical, working, head and neck restraints seemed like a no brainer, but some drivers balked, until Nascar stepped in and said WEAR IT.

Let us hope and pray that Rick Mast's poisoning is an isolated case, and not the first in a long line of drivers who were poisoning themselves without even knowing it.

Dr. Penney, an expert on the subject of Carbon Monoxide poisoning, was gracious enough to give me and an interview with the hope that he can enlighten our readers with some important facts about Carbon Monoxide and Racing.

Rick Mast's poisoning is characterized as chronic CO poisoning.

Danny: My first question is how does CO attack gradually over long periods of time?

Dr. Penney: I characterize it as repeated acute dosages of carbon monoxide. He could be in the car driving the car for a matter of minutes or hours, then he'd get out and would be gone from the car and wouldn't be getting any CO, then he'd get back in and he'd get it again. So, it's a kind of chronic, very intermittent chronic, with high peaks followed by long periods where he wasn't getting any CO. I could be wrong, I don't know the exact way it's done. I know he said that sometimes he's around it for considerable periods of time, sometimes for a weekend when there's a big race, so it would vary from time to time. I don't think there's anything wrong with calling it chronic.

Danny: How much damage is typically done if a driver gets to the point of nearly passing out or throwing up?

Dr. Penney: The relationship between how much CO a person has in their body to how much damage is done is a very, very, very, inexact relationship. Some people would think that there is a strict relationship but there really isn't. First of all, people vary a lot. Some people can receive quite a severe CO poisoning and come out with virtually no lasting effects.

Another person may have what would appear to be a relatively mild CO poisoning and suffer severe long term effects [including]impaired cognition, impaired short term memory, problems with emotions, depression is one of the major things we see there, continual headaches, confusion, joint pain, muscle pain, visual problems etc. Really, it varies from individual to individual.

Danny: What would be a drivers first clue that he is inspiring CO?

Dr. Penney: The common symptoms of acute CO poisoning are headache, confusion, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, weakness, sometimes fatigue. The symptoms of a chronic exposure are not all that different, but usually fatigue is a bigger factor, the biggest, most common symptom. In severe cases people have described it as having the worst hangover of your life all the time.

Danny: What is the prognoses and timetable for recovery in such a severe case?

Dr. Penney: The answer isn't as clear cut as you might think or hope it was. If a person has residual effects and has had them for a year or more since their last contact with CO, the chances are that they are going to have those residual effects for a long long time after that, maybe for the rest of their life. Particularly if you have the cognitive effects, the short term memory problems, problems with mental processing, problems with multitasking, the things that revolve around that, those seam to be the problems that are the most intransigent, that will last the longest.

Danny: Some drivers, notably Jimmy Spencer, breath large amounts of oxygen following a race. Is this a beneficial practice health wise?

Dr. Penney: Well, it very well might be. The risk of breathing oxygen in that way is very small, and I guess the cost is pretty small too. It's probably similar to what we see when a person goes into the emergency room with presumed CO poisoning, the Docs put them on oxygen with a mask, or they put them in a hyper baric chamber where they use 100o/o oxygen at a higher pressure. That forces the carbon monoxide out of the blood and out of the body and gets the oxygen to the tissue, especially the brain, much more quickly. I'd say it's probably useful depending on the individual. As I say, the risk is low so it can't really hurt. There haven't been extensive studies on that, in a race car situation, but drawing on what we've learned from the emergency room situation, it seems like it would be wise to do so.

Danny: Would CO detectors work in the turbulent atmosphere inside a racing stock car?

Dr. Penney: I would think so, yes. CO monitors of various kinds, maybe not a CO detector like you'd buy at the hardware, but a CO monitoring system that can monitor the CO concentration from moment to moment and store the information in some kind of an on board or off board computer would be the way you would want to go. I personally have advised other manufacturers, not of automobiles but other kinds of vehicles, about how to monitor for CO in a much more sophisticated manor than using a home CO detector or alarm.

Danny: Is there a test that could be administered during an annual physical that could alert the physician to a problem?

Dr. Penney: The problem with doing carboxy-hemoglobin measurements is that, if you've looked at my website there is an alert there about the measurement of CO in the blood. It has to be done within a couple hours after you leave the site of the CO poisoning, and if it's done a day later the number you get is of no value. Now the physician could administer some kind of neuro-psychiatric test and that may be of some value, and it's a very interesting question, I guess I don't have a ready answer. Generally MDs are not very well equipped to handle CO poisoning and have little training in the area and the other problem is that, unlike lead and mercury, CO doesn't stay around. You know that lead and mercury stay around for years in your body, whereas CO is gone within a matter of hours so you can't really take a measurement of it and say ah ha! It's here. Because it's gone.

Danny: So rather than the CO itself, it's the effects that are residual?

Dr. Penney: Oh yes. The damage to the body doesn't go away because the damage is mainly in the central nervous system. The damage stays, but the poison leaves.

Danny: Is there anything that a driver who feels he has been exposed to CO for extended periods do to protect himself from future problems associated with CO poisoning?

Dr. Penney: Not be exposed again to CO. You want to get as little exposure as possible if you've been exposed. I answer questions from people all over the world through my website and I have lots of people ask me what can be done and there's very little that can be done except don't be exposed to CO again. Because once you are exposed and damage occurs, it's not reversible and there are no cures for it.

Danny: And finally, are you a NASCAR fan, doctor?

Dr. Penney: Well, I go to visit my brother-in-law in Florida and he's a very big NASCAR fan, it's certainly exciting, I'm interested in it I suppose more from the viewpoint of CO exposure, because there is, obviously, an enormous opportunity for humans to be exposed to CO, because you've got this huge engine with no catalytic converter, producing huge amounts of CO very close to where humans are. Gasoline engines have traditionally produced huge amounts of CO. I've worked with the Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years as a consultant, and they've been extremely successful in forcing the auto makers in the U.S to put catalytic converters on so the new cars on the road today produce virtually no CO out the tailpipe, but I don't believe any of your race cars in NASCAR have catalytic converters. So their 500 or 800 horse engines are burning huge amounts of fuel and producing huge amounts of CO. I've sat down and calculated the amount of CO that would be produced with 43 cars out there. It would be an astounding amount of CO that one would hope would be diluted into a huge volume of air so that it wouldn't pose a health hazard to humans but I think that's often not the case.

Danny: Is there anything you'd like to add that you think race fans might be interested in or should know?

Dr. Penney: I guess my point of view should be that there should be special measures taken by whoever operates the races to explore ways of reducing exposure of the drivers, maybe also the fans, but particularly the drivers, to CO. It may be contributing to accidents during the races. I'd be surprised if it weren't because CO is known to impair reaction times and alertness and lots of other things in laboratory tests. So I would like to see it studied by NASCAR or by a group that would work with NASCAR so that we could get maximum protection for the people.

Danny: Doctor Penney, thank you very much for your time and valuable insight.

Our hopes and prayers go out to Rick Mast and his family for a speedy and full recovery.

Since this interview, USA Today and others have published articles regarding NASCAR taking a stand on this subject. Time will tell if the proper measures are taken, but don't hold your breath. Then again, maybe we should!!

Don't forget to check out our "Speed Bucks Contest." It's a challenging way to have some fun and win some money.

Also, don't forget to pray for our brave servicemen and women wherever they serve this great country.

Happy Racin'
Danny Zeeff

Thanks to Mr. Zeeff for running this interview in late January, 2003. I believe it has real value for race drivers and the public alike! ...... Dr. D. Penney

last changed 02/19/03

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