BUFORD — Six people narrowly escaped a "silent killer" Monday morning, when the occupants of a Buford mobile home were sickened by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Capt. Thomas Rutledge, spokesman for Gwinnett County Fire Services, said emergency personnel were called to a home on Boulder Way, near Satellite Boulevard, at about 2 a.m.
"We were initially responding to a ‘sick person’ call, but when we got on the scene, it was obvious that we were dealing with multiple sick people," Rutledge said.
He said there were three adults and three children in the home, ranging from 17 months to 30 years old. All displayed classic signs of carbon monoxide poisoning: dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting, flushing of the skin.
Tests of the indoor air showed high levels of carbon monoxide, Rutledge said.
"These people were fortunate. Had they been in there any longer, they might not have survived. Luckily, an individual was able to wake up and call 911."
The department initially sent one ambulance, but ended up needing three. The victims were taken to Gwinnett Medical Center for treatment. Rutledge said they were all released by Tuesday, but were not allowed to return home.
"The Red Cross is assisting them (with a place to stay) while investigators try to determine the source of the carbon monoxide," he said.
Firefighters suspected a gas leak because the pilot light on the kitchen stove had blown out. But Rutledge said the local gas company will have to inspect the home’s gas-powered appliances, and repairs would have to be made before it’s safe for the occupants to return.
the home’s gas-powered appliances, and repairs would have to be made before it’s safe for the occupants to return.
A timely 911 call kept these people from becoming part of a grim statistic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of unintentional poisoning in the United States, killing about 500 victims each year.
One of those deaths occurred in Gainesville, almost exactly three years ago, during the December 2004 ice storm. Four people were sickened at a home on Johnson Street, where they were using a gasoline generator under the porch and were cooking indoors with a propane grill.
A man, woman and baby were taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center and recovered after being treated with oxygen. But a 17-year-old, Jose Saliz, was so ill that he was sent to an Atlanta hospital to be put in a hyperbaric chamber. He died before treatment could begin.
Dr. John Lewellen, emergency physician at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said he sees a handful of carbon monoxide poisonings each year, "including a couple that are severe enough that we have to send them to a hyperbaric chamber."
A hyperbaric chamber surrounds the patient with pressurized oxygen. The medical center recently acquired two of the machines, but those are used for wound healing and are not set up for emergencies.
Lewellen said the chambers are helpful because, in carbon monoxide poisoning, the carbon monoxide molecules attach to red blood cells easily, crowding out the oxygen molecules.
"Your body can’t transport oxygen to the tissues," he said. "If you can get out of the (poisoned) environment quickly and get fresh air, you’ll return to normal. But in a severe case there can be long-term effects, such as memory loss, because your brain was deprived of oxygen."
Lewellen said people often don’t know they’ve been poisoned.
"They show up in the ER with flu-like symptoms, but then they’ll say something that tips us off, like, ‘Our power got turned off, so we’ve been using a space heater.’ That’s when we know to do a blood test for carbon monoxide."
Lt. Beverley Walker, fire and life safety educator for Hall County Fire Services, said carbon monoxide is known as the "silent killer."
"It’s odorless and colorless," she said. "It’s a byproduct of (incomplete) combustion of any fossil fuel. So you need to worry about it if you’ve got a fireplace, a kerosene space heater, or any appliance that uses natural gas or propane."
How do you know if your home has a carbon monoxide problem? "A good indicator is that your flu-like symptoms start to improve whenever you leave the house," Walker said.
But she doesn’t advise using yourself as a gauge. Most homes, she said, should have a carbon monoxide detector in addition to a smoke detector.
"Through the Safe Kids program, the Hall County and Gainesville fire departments can supply (carbon monoxide) alarms for people who are unable to purchase them," Walker said.
If your carbon monoxide alarm goes off, it may take some investigative work to figure out where the gas is coming from.
"Unlike smoke, you can’t see it or smell it," Walker said.
But there are some obvious culprits. If you have a fireplace, make sure the chimney isn’t blocked. All gas appliances need to be vented to the outdoors. Charcoal grills, camp stoves and generators should never be used indoors.
Walker said if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, getting everyone out into the fresh air could save lives.
"Opening a door or window will reduce the concentration of (carbon monoxide in your home), but it doesn’t solve the problem unless you find out what’s causing it," she said.