The Dangers of Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Carbon monoxide has been called “a silent killer” by Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, and she said the deadly toxin “leads to 50 deaths every year”. While this figure may seem relatively low when compared to other statistics – from 2010 to 2011, for example, 388 people died in UK house fires and there were more than 10,000 recorded non-fatal casualties – carbon monoxide remains one of the most serious health and safety threats. And the fact that it is completely avoidable makes the number of deaths even more shocking.

In order to eradicate the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning it is vital to know and understand all the relevant information – including what it is, what it does and, most importantly, how to avoid it. So the fire safety specialists at Elite Fire have compiled a handy guide to make sure you prevent poisoning and learn how to recognise the early warning signs…

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a product of the incomplete combustion of natural or petroleum gas. It is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas which is slightly lighter than air and, when encountered in high concentrations, is toxic to humans and animals.

It is produced from the partial oxidation of carbon-containing compounds which, in more simple terms, means it forms when there is not enough oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. Carbon monoxide can be produced by any fuel-burning appliance, when the combustion of carbon-based fuels, such as bottled gas, mains gas, coal, oil or wood, is incomplete. Common sources of carbon monoxide include faulty central heating systems, gas appliances and fires. Additionally, blocked flues and chimneys are a massive carbon monoxide threat as the gases can’t escape.


What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

If carbon monoxide is inhaled it replaces the oxygen in the blood and, in large enough quantities will reduce the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, killing cells and starving the vital organs of oxygen. The main symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often similar to those of a viral cold, flu infection or food poisoning, and include things such as a headache, nausea, abdominal pain, dizziness, sore throat and dry cough. But, unlike flu, carbon monoxide poisoning doesn’t cause a high temperature – making this something to look out for.

More severe carbon monoxide poisoning can include a fast and irregular heart rate, hyperventilation, confusion, drowsiness and difficult breathing. Seizures and loss of consciousness may occur in more extreme cases as well.

One of the biggest dangers of carbon monoxide is how undetectable it is – you can’t see it, smell it, taste it or hear it, meaning people die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning by simply slipping into unconsciousness and never coming round.

This makes it incredibly important to understand the symptoms and early warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, their ambiguous nature can make them quite difficult to distinguish, meaning it is vital you prevent the threat of carbon monoxide as much as possible.

You can minimise the risk of exposure by putting these safety tips into practice:

  • Service and clean your chimneys and flues regularly
  • Make sure your gas appliances and heating systems are inspected yearly
  • Install and regularly maintain high quality carbon monoxide alarms
  • Never run cars, motorbikes or lawn mowers in a closed garage

What are the commercial regulations?

If you own or manage a commercial building, the law states you must identify any activities which may expose workers or the public to carbon monoxide. And, in order to fully comply with The Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 you must then manage these risks accordingly. This involves undertaking Risk Assessments, regularly servicing your gas appliances, heating systems, chimneys, and fitting carbon monoxide alarms.


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