Invisible Villain

Driving make you drowsy or irritable? Watch out—It may be monoxide, suspected mystery factor in accidents!

H. DYSON CARTER September 1 1941

Invisible Villain

Driving make you drowsy or irritable? Watch out—It may be monoxide, suspected mystery factor in accidents!

H. DYSON CARTER September 1 1941

Invisible Villain

Driving make you drowsy or irritable? Watch out—It may be monoxide, suspected mystery factor in accidents!


IT HAPPENED in a split second. On a busy avenue the big coupe swung out of line. It plunged straight for a street car “safety zone.” Women screamed and jumped as the coupe crashed through the guard rail.

One woman was not quick enough. A policeman covered her still form with his coat.

Angrily the crowd turned on the coupe’s driver. Middle-aged, the man stepped shakily out of his crumpled car. He staggered slightly. Someone yelled “Drunk!” A patrol car whisked the driver away to headquarters.

“I haven’t touched a drink for weeks. I. .. .1 don’t know what happened!”

In a few minutes the examining police surgeon knew. A blood sample told the story of the terrorized driver’s crash. The man was cold sober. But he was poisoned. Semi-conscious from breathing carbon-monoxide gas.

This is a true story. One of scores told by F. M. Van Deventer, New York engineer and leading authority on the monoxide menace. His surveys have covered hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks, buses and their drivers. For years he and other experts have been drawing the net of evidence tighter around monoxide. Now this invisible, odorless, tasteless poison gas, poured out by defective motors, is being brought to trial as the long-sought criminal in countless traffic crashes.

Medical science has just begun its testimony. This is urgently important to every car driver and passenger. Drastic reduction of city and highway accidents may at last be within practical reach.

Right now the appalling truth about accidents is given by the U. S. National Safety Council’s ominous warning: “We are steadily losing ground.” Since 1939 the death-and-damage toll has begun climbing again.

Let’s pull over to the curb for a minute. If the safety program hasn’t succeeded, who is to blame?

Accident prevention is based on the “four Big E’s.” Engineering to make cars and roads safer. Examination to weed out dangerous drivers. Education for motorist and pedestrian. All backed up by the weight of Enforcement.

The city of Detroit, motor capital of the world, has probed long and deeply for the cause of safety’s slow retreat. Dr. Lowell S. Selling recently completed for Detroit one of the most thorough

accident studies ever made. This psychiatrist accepts the fact, established everywhere by police, that less than two accidents in every hundred nowresult from mechanically defective cars. Dr. Selling has high praise for safety education. Yet he finds one out of every three accidents is caused by chronic danger-drivers. Few of these men and women can be discovered by medical examination. They have obscure defects of mind or personality, serious enough to make them frequently reckless, confused, awkward or otherwise menacing. Dr. Selling assumed that such people are mild to moderate “mental cases,” in need of psychological treatment. But we will return to this later.

What about the remaining two-out-of-three crashes? These are the great majority, the puzzling tragedies of the road. The story is familiar.

“I’ve never had an accident before! I was driving carefully.... not fast. .. .suddenly the child ran out....”

Remorse Will Whisper

THIS IS what may happen tomorrow to you or your neighbor. The court will probably exonerate you of all blame. But remorse will whisper a grave suspicion. “Other times, I’ve acted quickly enough to prevent accidents. Every driver has close scrapes. What was wrong this time? Was something wrong with me? Wasn’t it really my fault?”

Talking over Dr. Selling’s report, safety experts hammered home one solemn truth. Most accidents involve safe cars, good drivers, ideal conditions. Plus a Mystery Factor.

Is it fate? Bad luck? Doctors and engineers scorn such futile guesses. The finger of official accusation is pointing now at carbon monoxide. Science is constantly adding to the evidence that monoxide can strike in subtle ways never before suspected, with critically dangerous effects on drivers.

Monoxide is definitely established as the cause of many accidents. Some authorities now accuse the gas of being the mystery cause in most if not all of the unexplained two-out-of-three crashes. What we used to believe about this insidious poison gas is being completely revised by research.

Perhaps you’ll remember, back in the nineteentwenties, the scare over monoxide gas in city streets. This poison—CO, chemists call it—is blown out the exhaust pipes of all cars and trucks. But in 1928 the U. S. Public Health Service reported that no gas menace existed. Because the quantity of monoxide inside and outside cars was below the danger level.

Unfortunately, medicine knew little then about the effects of carbon monoxide. Like the old-fashioned view that a man was either drunk or sober, it

was held that breathing CO would either kill you, make you outright ill, or have no effect at all.

Monoxide now stands revealed as a fifth columnist among poisons. It acts on the human body by stopping the supply of oxygen needed by every living cell. It acts subtly, painlessly, inside the blood. You can be killed by monoxide without even gasping for breath. Anoxia the doctors call it. Oxygen starvation.

This starvation may be very slow. Monoxide effects pile up during exposure. You might breathe a certain percentage of CO for three hours without harm. One or two hours more and symptoms appear. Ten hours and you would be unconscious.

Dr. John P. Russell in 1939 carried out elaborate tests for the California Highway Patrol. He proved that a healthy man could breathe for an hour 400 parts of monoxide in a million parts of air without noticeable effects. But only one quarter this amount would seriously affect him if inhaled over a period of hours. Argued Dr. Russell: “It will render the driver of a motor vehicle less efficient and more liable to become involved in an accident. I am convinced that many unexplained highway accidents are due to the driver unknowingly breathing dangerous amounts of exhaust gases.”

That was three years ago. Russell’s report drew little attention. No national monoxide surveys had been made. Many experts doubted that the gas could accumulate in a moving car.

Years before Russell’s experiments, the work of two researchers named Graf and Gleeson had gone practically unnoticed. These men carried out road tests using a standard sedan. This car had a defect in the exhaust system, a leak common in cars oí all ages. Various drivers took the sedan out under various conditions. The exhaust leak did not give any noticeable smell. But after one hour’s driving, chemical tests showed up to twenty per cent monoxide in the blood! Far less of the poison will cause marked fatigue; in some people serious illness.

This test proved in a practical way that an exhaust leak can result in very dangerous quantities of carbon monoxide inside a closed car. Of course this proved nothing about cars in general. It remained for Van Deventer to conduct mass tests. But Graf and Gleeson had observed shocking blood CO levels. What about smaller amounts? How little monoxide will threaten a driver’s faculties?

Astonishing Findings Made

ONLY THIS year has monoxide poisoning been examined with full medical-research facilities. Astonishing is the word for the laboratory findings. Perhaps the most interesting study was

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done in Baltimore by Doctors Harvey Beck, Wilmer Schulze and George Suter, who traced 150 baffling hospital cases to carbon monoxide. The poison originated in several ways: from gas heaters, coal stoves, natural-gas wells and automobiles. Three general types of sickness were observed, affecting the heart, digestive system and nerves.

Nervous disorders ranged from mild drowsiness to violent psychoses and epilepsy. Each patient presented a different picture. There were fainting spells, blurred vision, muscular twitches, heart attacks, sudden emotional outbursts. These symptoms resulted from breathing extremely small quantities of carbon monoxide, over long periods of time, under everyday living circumstances. Few even guessed what was wrong.

This careful clinical study proved what earlier investigators had only suspected. Now established beyond doubt are these two facts: The

amount of monoxide needed to cause symptoms of great danger to motorists is very much smaller than previously accepted. And not only are different people variously sickened, but each individual’s resistance changes greatly from time to time. There is no “safe limit” to the monoxide you can breathe. Any appreciable amount is dangerous.

Clearly this may be the clue to countless mystery accidents.

Monoxide can drastically affect drivers. One’s braking speed will be reduced. Another’s grip will be

loosened. Normal eyes may be

“tunnel blinded” without warning, so that vision is good only straight

ahead, although no change is felt. Commonest menace of all is the universal monoxide symptom: slowly creeping drowsiness.

But the Baltimore studies revealed another fact of greatest importance. Some victims of gradual CO poisoning suffer not physically but mentally. It is not so much their reactions or alertness that are affected, hut their mood and emotions. There may be outbursts of “gas anger.” This has long been known to firemen, who often see normte! men transformed into temporary maniacs by breathing a little smoke a long time. Aviation research has proved that anoxia—-whether caused by breathing thin air or monoxide—can give almost all the mental symptoms in a psychiatrist’s case book.

As we saw, Dr. Selling found Detroit’s chronic-accident drivers subject to emotional disturbances, which he blamed for recurrent smashes. Not one of those people was tested for slow, chronic, monoxide poisoning! Yet their reported symptoms have striking resemblance to those of the Baltimore patients who belonged to the “emotional group.”

Is it possible that many or even most dangerous drivers are really poisoned? Such a sweeping conclusion cannot yet be drawn. United States Army aviation surgeons seem to have discovered the really vital connecting fact.

It is this. When the brain is slowly starved of oxygen (anoxia by breathing rare air or monoxide) the patient sooner or later suffers emotional disturbances. These upsets are of the same kind as shown by that patient after mental strain. In other words, monoxide does not cause but only brings out any lurking mental instability. The result may be harmless “jitters” or violent attacks.

Hits Your Weakest Link

(ARBON MONOXIDE, in gradA ual doses, attacks each human being in his or her weakest link. Unstable people react with anger, recklessness, and so on. Those with heart trouble feel cardiac pain. Sluggish persons become dangerously slow. Tired people get sleepy. The last fact may have special importance in view of rising accident peaks at the day’s end; no tests have yet been made on this.

The very nature of automobile accidents makes them extremely difficult to probe scientifically. Many authorities are at work on the monoxide problem. This much is already definite: the gas can and will bring on the sudden moods that give habitually dangerous drivers their bad accident records. The gas can and will put normally safe drivers in shape for a crash.

The critical question is: What are the average driver’s chances of breathing enough monoxide to put him or her into a physical and mental accident state?

The chances are serious. Using chemical apparatus which will soon be available everywhere, Van Deventer found inside six per cent of all cars tested a dangerous quantity of monoxide; that is, a quantity which

would produce poison symptoms if breathed for an hour or so. Latest reports cover 300,000 cars, trucks and buses, examined under all conditions in widely separated areas. Well over half of all tested vehicles contained varying amounts of the gas, indicating a motor or exhaust condition that might easily develop into a grave menace to the occupants.

Says Van Deventer: “A mere hatful of exhaust gas, leaking from a motor slightly out of adjustment, carries enough monoxide to threaten the driver’s fitness.”

Scare stuff? Let’s be thankful if the scare is real! For this is one accident cause every car driver and rider can banish today.

Here’s how monoxide gets to your lungs:

From a motor burning too much gasoline.

From a leaking exhaust-manifold gasket.

From a cracked exhaust manifold.

From a loose exhaust-pipe connection.

From holes in the muffler.

From faulty exhaust heaters.

From following closely behind another vehicle.

In half an hour your garage man can check on these points. Make a rule never to drive or ride with all windows closed, no matter how cold t he weather. This precaution reduces the danger of accumulating gas; but experts warn that a motor defect plus leaks in floor boards or panel may keep gas streaming to your face regardless of ventilation.

And never trail closely another car, truck or bus travelling fast on the highway. If you can’t pass promptly, fall back. At high speeds a poorly adjusted motor releases great quantities of monoxide. Close contact in traffic jams is a less serious matter, because idling motors rarely develop monoxide in dangerous amounts.

Your Danger Signals

MONOXIDE cannot be smelled, tasted, seen or suspected. Long before you notice serious effects you may be too dangerous to drive. On day or night runs, at the first sign of headache, numbness, drowsiness, nausea or smarting eyes. . .STOP!—Get out. Walk briskly. Wait half an hour before you take the wheel.

Next time you have a close shave, don’t thank your lucky driving star. Ask yourself how it was that a truck cut in “from nowhere.” Or a bicycle darted out of the dark. Or you beat a train without even seeing the tracks. Then think of monoxide.

Engineer Van Deventer sums it up: “New cars and old, cheap and costly, all get out of adjustment. Insist on regular, thorough inspections with a gas analyzer.”

To perfect-record drivers inclined to smile at monoxide, here is a reminder. Every day on this continent more than fifty human lives are snuffed out and many hundreds are maimed by motorists who never before had an accident!

Breathed a little each day, monoxide will slowly sap your health. A few strong whiffs, and monoxide will give you a personal introduction to tragedy.