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Train derailment sparks call for sleep apnea screening

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – A deadly Metro-North train derailment last year in which the “dazed” engineer was found to have sleep apnea has pushed the commuter railroad to look into establishing screening for the condition, which could include measuring operators’ necks and asking them and their spouses about snoring habits.

While no cause has been established for the Dec. 1 derailment in the Bronx that left four dead and dozens hurt, apnea has gotten much of the attention. Even before the accident, federal railroad officials had been discussing requirements related to sleep disorders. But there is still no national screening requirement for apnea, and railroads around the country have varying practices.

Apnea robs its victims of rest because their tongue and throat muscles relax too much during sleep, and they are repeatedly awakened as their airway closes and their breathing stops.

“The person basically gasps himself awake,” said Dr. Gregory Belenky, director of the sleep and performance research center at Washington State University. “It’s very much the functional equivalent of waterboarding.”

Loud snoring is a symptom and apnea is more common in those who are overweight. Having a large neck size, over 17 inches for men, is a risk factor.

In the case of engineer William Rockefeller, who was at the controls during the Metro-North derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board said he was classified as obese at 5-foot-11 and over 260 pounds.

Rockefeller told NTSB investigators that he felt strangely “dazed” before his train hit the curve, which has a 30 mph speed limit, at 82 mph. Asked if he was clearheaded enough to realize he was entering a curve, he replied, “Apparently not.”

Rockefeller’s medical exam after the accident uncovered “severe obstructive sleep apnea,” and when experts studied his sleep, he woke up about 65 times an hour without being conscious of it. As few as five interruptions an hour can make someone chronically sleepy.

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