How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Carbon Monoxide (CO)

What is Carbon Monoxide and why should householders be concerned?

CO is not detectable by humans. It is a gas with no odour or colour, which is produced as a result of burning carbon fuels. It can be fatally poisonous. CO can be found in the fumes from burning fuels such as petrol, charcoal, coal, or kerosene; or from typical household appliances such as wood stoves, coal or gas fires, gas cookers and gas boilers. The danger arises when these appliances have been incorrectly calibrated, used incorrectly, or where faults or poor performance are ignored. In addition, danger occurs when the fumes are burned in small, inadequately ventilated spaces.

Why does CO kill?

Normally, red blood cells circulate oxygen through the body for healthy tissue regeneration. When we breathe air saturated with CO, the red cells lose their ability to take up oxygen, resulting in tissue damage and death.

What are the symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning?

Symptoms can be insidious over a period of time, which is why CO is sometimes referred to as the ‘silent killer’. People may experience feelings of lethargy, or complain of symptoms such as headaches and nausea and assume that they are just feeling tired or ‘run-down’. Other symptoms include confusion, dizziness, and shortness of breath and chest pain. The symptoms may be difficult to recognise, especially if the person is already suffering from other health conditions, is elderly or alcohol dependent.

Some people are particularly at risk from CO poisoning

These groups include the elderly, babies, immune suppressed individuals or people with existing heart disease, respiratory problems or anaemia. In addition, individuals who may be forced through circumstance to sleep in unregulated buildings or sub-standard accommodation, where their safety is not considered to be a priority by the owners of the property.

Information from NHS.co.uk shows that there are over 50 deaths in the UK each year due to CO poisoning and around 200 people each year become seriously ill.

How to prevent CO poisoning happening in your home or your car

  • Get an annual gas safety check and have your gas appliances serviced at the same time, always using an engineer with Gas Safe Register accreditation to service and install gas appliances. These can be found on Which? Local, or the Gas Safe Register website.
  • Any oil, coal or wood appliances should also be checked annually.
  • Keep exterior flues free from blockages.
  • Gas boilers should not be fitted in unvented cupboards.
  • Working chimneys should also be inspected and swept annually.
  • Check internal and external pipework to and from your appliances to ensure that all joint seals remain tight, especially after frosts.
  • Never cook on an outdoor charcoal or gas barbeque inside the home, or a shed, or cabin/summerhouse.
  • Similarly, never use a portable gas stove indoors.
  • Check the exhaust on the car and as soon as you hear any untoward noises from that area, get it examined by a qualified mechanic.
  • Never run the engine when the car is sitting in the garage, unless the garage door is open.
  • Be aware that if anyone in the family suffers from vague symptoms which seem to worsen when at home but get better when at work, out in the fresh air, or on holiday, you may have a CO leak in the home.

Most importantly

Get an audible CO alarm which conforms to EN 50291 and is marked with the British Standard’s Kite mark and don’t leave it in a cupboard. The noise it makes could save your life, especially if it is activated whilst you are sleeping.

If the alarm is activated, switch off appliances, open doors and windows and move out of the building into a ventilated area, preferably outdoors. Call the Gas Safety Advice Line on 0800 300 363 for advice. If symptoms are experienced, immediate medical attention is vital. In the meantime stay safe and continue to be vigilant and follow safety advice.