Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas that has no smell, taste or colour. This means you can inhale it without realising. After breathing in CO, it enters your bloodstream and mixes with haemoglobin (the part of red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body), to form carboxyhaemoglobin. When this happens, the blood is no longer able to carry oxygen, and this lack of oxygen causes the body’s cells and tissue to die. Every year in the UK, over 200 people go to hospital with suspected CO poisoning, which leads to around 40 deaths. It is important to be aware of the dangers and identify any appliances in your house that could potentially leak CO.
CO is produced when fuels such as gas, oil, coal or wood do not burn fully. When a fire burns in an enclosed space, such as a room, the oxygen is gradually used up and replaced with carbon dioxide. The fuel is unable to burn fully and releases CO. What causes CO to leak?
Incorrectly installed, poorly maintained or poorly ventilated household appliances such as cookers, heaters and central heating boilers, are the most common sources of CO. Blocked flues and chimneys can also prevent CO escaping, allowing it to reach dangerous levels. The risk of CO poisoning can occur at any time, in any home or enclosed space. Being aware of the signs.
It is very important to be aware of the risk of CO poisoning and to look out for warning signs.
You should suspect CO poisoning if:
1. Other people in your house, flat or workplace fall ill with similar symptoms;
2. Your symptoms disappear when you go away (for example, on holiday) and return when you come back;
3. Your symptoms tend to be seasonal, for example you get headaches more often during the winter when the central heating is used more frequently;
4. Your pets also become ill.
Other possible clues of a carbon monoxide leak include:
1. Black, sooty marks on the front covers of gas fires;
2. Sooty marks on the walls around boilers, stoves or fires;
3. Smoke building up in rooms due to a faulty flue;
4. Yellow instead of blue flames coming from gas appliances.
Symptoms of CO poisoning
A headache is the most common symptom of mild CO poisoning. Other symptoms include dizziness, nausea & vomiting, tiredness & confusion, stomach pain, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Symptoms of CO poisoning can be similar to those of food poisoning and the flu. However, unlike flu, CO poisoning does not cause a high temperature (fever).
Preventing CO poisoning
Install a CO alarm, as this will detect a leak in your home and give out a high-pitched noise when gas levels are high. They are available from DIY and hardware stores. However, alarms are not a substitute for maintaining and regularly servicing household appliances. If your CO alarm sounds or you suspect a leak:
1. Stop using all appliances and evacuate the property immediately - stay calm and avoid raising your heart rate;
2. Call the gas emergency number on 0800 002 001 or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Gas Safety Advice Line on 0800 300 363 to report the incident;
3. Do not go back into the property - wait for advice from the emergency services;
4. Get immediate medical help - you may not realise if you're badly affected by the CO and going outside into fresh air won't treat any exposure by itself.