Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, poisonous gas produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-based fuels, including gas, oil, wood and coal. Carbon based fuels are usually safe to use, however, when the fuel does not burn properly, excess CO is produced, which is poisonous. When CO enters the body, it prevents the blood from bringing oxygen to cells, tissues, the brain and organs.
You cannot see it, taste it or smell it but CO can kill quickly with little warning. Around 50 people die every year from CO poisoning caused by gas, oil and solid fuel appliances and flues that have not been properly installed, maintained or that are poorly ventilated. Lower CO levels that do not kill immediately can cause serious harm to health if breathed in over a long period. In extreme cases paralysis and brain damage can be caused as a result of prolonged exposure to CO. Increasing public understanding of the risks of CO poisoning and taking sensible precautions could dramatically reduce this risk.
What preventative measures can I take?
- Ensure that any work carried out in relation to gas appliances in domestic or commercial premises is to be undertaken by a Gas Safe Registered engineer, competent in that area of work
- The HSE strongly advises that gas appliances and / or flues are installed and serviced regularly for safety by a Gas Safe Registered engineer. If you live in tenanted accommodation, your landlord has a legal duty to carry out an annual gas safety check and maintain gas appliances. They must provide you with a copy of the completed gas safety check certificate
- If you have a wood or coal burning stove fitted, make sure it is fitted by a HETAS approved installer. Make sure your chimneys are swept twice a year
- Always make sure there is enough fresh air in the room containing your gas, oil or solid fuel appliance. If you have a chimney or a flue, ensure it is not blocked up and also ensure that vents are not covered
- Do not use appliances like paraffin heaters and cabinet heaters in your house
- Never take a BBQ into a building or tent when it is still warm. When the embers have nearly died down, the BBQ will produce very large amounts of carbon monoxide!
Does the HSE recommend the use of carbon monoxide alarms?
The HSE strongly recommends the use of audible carbon monoxide (CO) alarms as an important precaution but they must not be regarded as a substitute for proper installation and maintenance of gas appliances by a Gas Safe Registered engineer. Before purchasing a CO alarm, always ensure it complies with British Standard EN 50291 and carries a British or European approval mark, such as a Kitemark. CO alarms should be installed, checked and serviced in line with the manufacturer’s instructions.
Please note: You can be particularly at risk from CO poisoning when you are asleep, because you may not be aware of early CO symptoms until it is too late. Having an audible CO alarm could wake you and save your life.
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
Early symptoms of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning can mimic many common ailments and may easily be confused with food poisoning, viral infections, flu or simple tiredness. Symptoms to look out for include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Pains in the chest
- Stomach pains
- Erratic behaviour
- Visual problems.
For more information visit the NHS or telephone NHS Direct on 0845 4647.
If you or your family experience any of the above symptoms and you believe CO may be involved, you must seek urgent medical advice from either your GP or an accident and emergency department. You should ask for a blood or breath test to confirm the presence of CO. Be aware, CO quickly leaves the blood and tests may be inaccurate if taken more than four hours after exposure has ceased.
How do I know if I am at risk from carbon monoxide?
Although carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas, signs that indicate incomplete combustion is occurring, resulting in the production of CO, include:
- Yellow or orange rather than blue flames
- Soot or yellow / brown staining around or on appliances
- Pilot lights that frequently blow out
- Increased condensation inside windows.
What should I do if I think my appliance is spilling carbon monoxide?
- Switch off the appliance and do not re-use until remedial action has been taken
- Gas appliances: Call Gas Emergency Freephone Number 0800 111 999
- Oil burning appliances: Call Oftec 0845 658 5080
- Solid fuel burning appliances: Call HETAS 0845 634 5626
- Open all doors and windows to ventilate the room – do not sleep in it
- Visit your GP urgently and tell him / her that you believe your symptoms may be related to carbon monoxide poisoning and request either a blood and / or breath sample.
Purchasing CO Alarms
Most CO alarms currently last between 7 and 10 years. Some CO alarms do not warn you when they reach the end of their life, which means that they might not function while giving the impression of protection. Safelincs offers some Kidde and FireAngel CO alarms that have a sensor life of ten years and a ten year guarantee! The Kidde CO alarms also give a warning when they reach the end of their useful life.
If you wish to not only receive a warning in case of excessive carbon monoxide but an actual readout, even at low CO levels, choose a digital CO alarm such as the Kidde 7DCO pictured here.