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Can you really survive on windshield wiper fluid for 5 days?

Ross D. Franklin / AP

Henry Morello, of Anthem, Ariz., talks about his ordeal in the desert during a news conference on Tuesday.

An Arizona octogenarian was stranded in his car for five days, subsisting on nothing but leftover pasta and windshield wiper fluid, the Arizona Republic reported earlier this week. That's five days with nothing to drink but windshield wiper fluid. We're so glad Henry Morello survived -- but it's unbelievably lucky that he did, explains Dr. Eric Lavonas, a medical toxicologist from the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, Colo.

"Five days with very little to drink would put most people in kidney failure," says Lavonas, who's a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. Indeed, Morello -- who's a diabetic -- will be treated for kidney damage in a Phoenix hospital for a few days, doctors at John C. Lincoln Hospital said at a news conference Tuesday. His doctors also said that it wasn't immediately clear whether the wiper fluid had caused him any serious harm.

Lavonas explains that windshield wiper fluid usually contains methanol, a toxic substance that's often used as an antifreeze. "It’s a poisonous alcohol that can cause bad chemical derangements in the body and can cause blindness. If you drink windshield wiper fluid, you can expect to get very sick and go blind ... within a few hours to a day." (For extra clarity, he adds later, "Yeah, just don't drink windshield wiper fluid.")

Some reports have said that Morello used a napkin to filter the wiper fluid, but Lavonas says that's not a great idea. "The parallel of that would be saying, 'I've got a rum and Coke, and I'm going to filter the rum out.' Yeah, not going to work," he says.

It's an especially remarkable tale considering that Morello is 84 years old. Younger, healthier people tend to be able to withstand dehydration -- and just about anything else, for that matter -- better than older, sicker folks, of course. The effects of dehydration -- muscle cramps, dizziness, decreased blood pressure and vision distortion -- can appear in as soon as a day, and lack of fluids becomes life-threatening within just a few days. (Most experts agree we can last about three or four days without any water at all.) As for food, we can go about three weeks without eating -- as long as we're getting enough fluids, that is. (The "starving yogi" would like to dispute that -- last year, the Indian yogi claimed he'd gone 70 years without eating or drinking anything, although experts say that's impossible.)

In Morello's case, "I would say that he’s a very lucky gentleman," Lavonas says. A better idea than downing wiper fluid: Keep an emergency kit in your car. Lavonas keeps an old duffel bag in his trunk -- it contains a gallon jug of water and a 15- to 20-year-old Army MRE (leftover from his days in the reserves), plus a blanket, flares, a crank-handle flashlight and a couple of old wool caps, to ward off the Colorado chill. You've already got most of this stuff lying around, he says. "Just jam a few basic items like that together in a duffel bag, throw it in your trunk and it could save your life."

It's either that, or risk a survival situation like Morello and others have experienced:

  • In 2007, a college student was trapped in his car at the bottom of a steep embankment in Maryland for eight days and seven nights, reported the Washington Post; he depended on the adjacent creek for his survival, eating fish he caught with his hands and using his high-top sneaker to drink water.
  • A 33-year-old Washington state woman was found alive after being trapped in her car for eight days at the bottom of a steep ravine in 2007; she was treated for dehydration and kidney damage, but she's well enough now to have written a book about the ordeal.
  • Tillie Tooter, an 83-year-old grandmother, survived for three days in August 2000 while trapped in her car, which was stuck in a thicket of mangrove trees. The only food she had on her was a stick of gum, a peppermint and a cough drop.
  • And a 32-year-old West Virginia man was stuck in his wrecked car for six freezing days -- with only an old jar of peanut butter and a few Taco Bell sauce packets for food.



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