Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that has no smell or taste. Breathing it in can make you unwell, and it can kill if you're exposed to high levels. Every year in the UK, more than 200 people go to hospital with suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, which leads to around 50 deaths. After carbon monoxide is breathed in, 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 fail and die.
The symptoms of exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can be similar to those of food poisoning and flu. But unlike flu, carbon monoxide poisoning doesn't cause a high temperature (fever). The symptoms can gradually get worse with prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide, leading to a delay in diagnosis. Your symptoms may be less severe when you're away from the source of the carbon monoxide. If this is the case you should investigate the possibility of a carbon monoxide leak, and ask a suitably qualified professional to check any appliances you think may be faulty and leaking gas. The longer you inhale the gas, the worse your symptoms will be. You may lose balance, vision and memory and, eventually, you may lose consciousness. This can happen within two hours if there's a lot of carbon monoxide in the air. Long-term exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can also lead to neurological symptoms, such as difficulty thinking or concentrating and frequent emotional changes – for example, becoming easily irritated, depressed or making impulsive or irrational decisions. Breathing in high levels of carbon monoxide gas can cause more severe symptoms. These may include:
impaired mental state and personality changes (intoxication)
vertigo – the feeling that you or the environment around you is spinning
ataxia – loss of physical co-ordination caused by underlying damage to the brain and nervous system
breathlessness and tachycardia (a heart rate of more than 100 beats per minute)
chest pain caused by angina or a heart attack
seizures – an uncontrollable burst of electrical activity in the brain that causes muscle spasms
loss of consciousness – in cases where there are very high levels of carbon monoxide, death may occur within minutes
What causes carbon monoxide to leak?
Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels such as gas, oil, coal and wood don't burn fully. Burning charcoal, running cars and the smoke from cigarettes also produce carbon monoxide gas. Gas, oil, coal and wood are sources of fuel used in many household appliances, including :
central heating systems
Incorrectly installed, poorly maintained or poorly ventilated household appliances – such as cookers, heaters and central heating boilers – are the most common causes of accidental exposure to carbon monoxide. The risk of exposure to carbon monoxide from portable devices may also be higher in caravans, boats and mobile homes. Other possible causes of carbon monoxide poisoning include :
blocked flues and chimneys – this can stop carbon monoxide escaping, allowing it to reach dangerous levels
burning fuel in an enclosed or unventilated space – for example, running a car engine, petrol-powered generator or barbecue inside a garage, or a faulty boiler in an enclosed kitchen
faulty or blocked car exhausts – a leak or blockage in the exhaust pipe, such as after heavy snowfall, could lead to a build-up of carbon monoxide
paint fumes – some cleaning fluids and paint removers contain methylene chloride (dichloromethane), which can cause carbon monoxide poisoning if breathed in
smoking shisha pipes indoors – shisha pipes burn charcoal and tobacco, which can lead to a build-up of carbon monoxide in enclosed or unventilated rooms
Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning
It's important to be aware of the dangers and identify any appliances in your house that could potentially leak carbon monoxide. Maintaining and servicing appliance such as Boilers, cookers, heating systems and appliances should be installed and regularly serviced by a reputable, registered engineer. Don't attempt to install or service appliances yourself. Anyone carrying out work on installations and appliances in your home must be registered with a relevant association, such as the:
Carbon monoxide alarms Install a carbon monoxide alarm in your home to alert you if there's a carbon monoxide leak. However, an alarm isn't a substitute for maintaining and regularly servicing household appliances. You can buy a carbon monoxide alarm from a DIY or hardware store. Make sure it's approved to the latest British or European Standard (BS Kitemark or EN50291).
Other safety tips at home and in the workplace Follow the safety tips below to help protect yourself at home and in the workplace:
Never use ovens or gas ranges to heat your home.
Never use oversized pots on your gas stove, or place foil around the burners.
Make sure rooms are well-ventilated and don't block air vents. If your home is double-glazed or draught-proofed, make sure there's still enough air circulating for any heaters that are in the room.
Don't use gas-powered equipment and tools inside your home if you can avoid it. Only use them in a well-ventilated area, and put the engine unit and exhaust outside.
Always wear a safety mask when using chemicals that contain methylene chloride.
Don't burn charcoal in an enclosed space, such as on an indoor barbecue.
Don't sleep in a room that has an unflued gas fire or paraffin heater.
Fit an extractor fan in your kitchen (if it doesn't already have one).
What to do if you suspect a carbon monoxide leak
What to do if you suspect a carbon monoxide leak or If your carbon monoxide alarm sounds.
stop using all appliances, switch them off, and open doors and windows to ventilate the property
evacuate the property immediately – stay calm and avoid raising your heart rate
call the gas emergency number on 0800 111 999 to report the incident,or Verisure gas on 07535 322964
don't go back into the property – wait for advice from the emergency services
seek immediate medical help – you may not realise you've been affected by the carbon monoxide, and going outside into fresh air won't treat any exposure by itself
Being aware of the signs It's very important to be aware of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and to look out for warning signs. You should suspect carbon monoxide poisoning if:
other people in your house, flat or workplace fall ill with similar symptoms
your symptoms disappear when you go away – for example, on holiday – and return when you come back
your symptoms tend to be seasonal – for example, if you get headaches more often during the winter when the central heating is used more frequently
your pets also become ill
Other possible clues of a carbon monoxide leak include:
black, sooty marks on the front covers of gas fires
sooty or yellow/brown stains on or around boilers, stoves or fires
smoke building up in rooms due to a faulty flue
yellow instead of blue flames coming from gas appliances
pilot lights frequently blowing out
Carbon monoxide kills! Don't chance it and call today