GA- By Debbie Gilbert, The Times

The tragic deaths of 12 West Virginia miners this week drew attention to the dangers of carbon monoxide. But while the circumstances of the mining disaster were extraordinary, carbon monoxide poisoning can happen to anyone at any time.

“It’s the leading cause of poisoning death in America,” said Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center in Atlanta.

In 2004, about 3,000 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning were reported in Georgia. Lopez did not have statistics on how many cases were fatal.

But just last month, the reality of the threat hit close to home in Gainesville. During the Dec. 15 ice storm, when many residents lost power, four people at 532 Johnson St. were sickened by carbon monoxide.

Gainesville Fire Chief Dick Taylor said the family received a double dose of the toxic gas, which is often referred to by its chemical abbreviation, CO.

“They were using a gasoline generator under the front porch, and inside the house they were using some sort of cooker that I believe was fueled by liquid propane,” he said.

Three of the victims — a man, woman, and infant — were taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, where they recovered after being given oxygen.

“But the 17-year-old male showed signs of extreme exposure,” Taylor said. “He was taken to St. Joe’s (St. Joseph Hospital in Atlanta) and put in a hyperbaric chamber, but he was too far gone.”

Taylor said the death of the teen, later identified as Jose Saliz, “was the first CO fatality I can recall here in many years.”

But given how easy it is to be exposed to CO, Taylor said it’s surprising there haven’t been more deaths.

“Carbon monoxide is the product of incomplete combustion, and anything that has an open flame can be a source,” he said.

That includes fireplaces as well as any indoor or outdoor appliance that runs on natural gas or any type of liquid fuel. Cars idling in enclosed garages are another common source.

“There are so many ways it can happen,” Lopez said. “Carbon monoxide is called the silent killer because it’s odorless and colorless. You don’t know it’s there.”

Taylor strongly recommends that residents install a CO detector, similar to a smoke detector, on every floor of their home.

“What we worry about is (a gas leak) happening while people are asleep, because CO just puts you into a deeper sleep,” he said.

Lopez said carbon monoxide acts almost like a parasite that invades the body and suffocates its host.

“CO attaches to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in our blood, and knocks off the oxygen molecules,” he said. “This deprives your heart and brain of oxygen, and there can be long-term or even irreversible consequences.”

Taylor is urging residents to be vigilant about maintaining their appliances properly and watching each other for symptoms of CO poisoning.