Did Video Games Really Kill Generator-Using Ike Victims?

For a few hours yesterday, the lead story at Chron.com gravely warned Houstonians on the dangers of mixing generators and video games. Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston evidently found that this happened often in the blacked-out weeks in the wake of Hurricane Ike, and issued a press release saying so, and the Chron's Cindy George ran with it.

"Many children treated for carbon monoxide poisoning in the powerless days after Hurricane Ike took ill while playing video games," intoned the article's lead sentence. Later, the article stated that of the children treated for monoxide poisoning who gave a specific reason for why they were using a generator, a full 75 percent said it was to power video games.

The very idea...

The article seemed tailor-made to stir up the "My lawn, get off of it" brigades, and it certainly did. Many of the 100-plus comments it elicited were along these lines: What kind of a society are we living in? What kind of parents would harness scarce resources to lavish such luxury on their spoiled brats? Video games? Back in my day, when we had a weeks-long post-hurricane power outage, we played cribbage, mumblety-peg, and shot marbles, and it was more fun than any of that violent mind-numbing balderdash. And instead of having good old-fashioned fun, these kids were literally killing themselves -- so it was averred in at least one comment -- to play their precious Xbox.

Not so much.

First, no kids died because of video game-induced carbon monoxide poisoning, and George's article never said so. Readers of some versions of the Chron's article could be confused for thinking otherwise, though, as it was reported that UT Health Science Center's findings helped form the backbone of June's Journal of Pediatrics article entitled "Dying to Play Video Games."

Second, there's the definition of "many," as in the "many children treated for carbon monoxide poisoning in the powerless days after Hurricane Ike." Buried deep in the article, we find it precisely defined: "Of 37 patients treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after the storm, 20 were younger than 20. In nine of the those cases, researchers were able to determine why a generator was in use and found that 75 percent were being used to run video games."

So the answer is that in this case, "many" = 6.75 children. Which is 6.75 kids too many, but hardly the epidemic some of the language in the article would lead us to believe.

The article also never made it clear if the generator was being used exclusively to power the PlayStation. And we have reason to doubt that even the most indulgent parents would have foregone powering up fans and refrigerators and a lamp or two so Junior can get his Grand Theft Auto on.

And wouldn't it be possible for those kids to have gotten sick even if they didn't have a Xbox at all? After all, it isn't like Xboxes emit toxic gases -- generators do. Place a generator in an enclosed area, and you're gonna have problems, whether the cause is as noble as keeping plasma cool for sick orphans or as frivolous as juicing up a Wii for a rousing game of Punch Out.

Hair Balls doesn't really have a problem with the study itself, even if the way its findings have been worded is a bit alarmist. Carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke. (We tried to reach the study's lead researcher, Dr. Caroline Fife, an expert on carbon monoxide poisoning, but she is away on business.) We do have a problem with the way the Chron amplified, rather than toned down, that alarmism.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax