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Deadly carbon monoxide could save lives of Arizona snakebite victims

(AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Cathleen Allison, File)
LISTEN: Deadly Gas Stops Snake Venom

PHOENIX — Carbon monoxide, a gas that can be deadly for humans, may actually be able to save the lives of people bitten by a venomous snake, Arizona researchers said.

Carbon monoxide delays the effects and diffusion of the venom for at least an hour, according to University of Arizona professor Dr. Vance Nielsen.

“Everything in … a golf ball-sized area will be densely treated with carbon monoxide and it will just sit there,” he said.

The gas kills people because it bonds faster with red blood cells and diffuses into the blood faster than oxygen. Because it essentially takes the place of oxygen, carbon monoxide prevents cells from getting oxygen, which kills them

Nielsen said the treatment uses just a little of it to prevent the patient from suffering the deadly effects.

“It’s a very small quantity when you drop it into solution or inject it into a tissue, so you’re not going to get carbon monoxide poisoning,” he said.

Neilsen has been working on this research for many years and said the solution does not require refrigeration or special handling.

“I’ve had bottles of [the carbon-monoxide compound] that, in a three-year period, there’s absolutely no difference in the results,” he said.

The gas-caused delay is not intended as a cure, but a temporary stop-gap so the patient can be given antivenin by medical professionals.

Neilsen said the research was still in the early stages and he was trying to get funding for large-scale animal testing. If that is successful, he said, he could move to human clinical trials.

There are 13 species of rattlesnakes in Arizona. The toxicity of their venom varies.

The one most often encountered is the Western diamondback rattlesnake. They’re responsible for most rattlesnake bites throughout Arizona.

Although few deaths have been recorded from rattlesnake bites, their venom can cause severe pain and widespread tissue death depending on how much the snake injects through its hollow fangs. This is why the bites require immediate medical attention.

Young children and the elderly are more susceptible to the venom.

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