Carbon Monoxide; Britain's Silent Killer

What is Carbon Monoxide (CO)?

Carbon Monoxide is a gas that cannot be seen, heard, smelt or tasted and is caused when appliances don't function properly or flues and chimneys become blocked limiting the amount of oxygen in the air available to burn.

What does Carbon Monoxide do to the body?

Carbon Monoxide poisoning is responsible for at least 200 hospital admittances with as many as 40 deaths a year in Britain. Once inhaled CO combines with an important metalloprotein; haemoglobin, combining to create carboxyhaemoglobin, this mutated protein denies oxygen atoms the space originally available and drastically reduces the transport of oxygen around the body.

Symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to a hangover or flu without the fever and can include;

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Breathlessness
  • Stomach Pain
  • Collapse
  • Loss of Conciousness

These symptoms are particularly important when;

  • They only occur in a specific place (home/office)
  • Your symptoms disappear when you leave this specific place but reoccur when you come back
  • Others in the place (humans/animals) are showing the same symptoms at the same time

What should you do if you experience the above symptoms or suspect CO poisoning?

If yourself or a loved one starts complaining of these symptoms in an enclosed environment it is important to seek fresh air immediately, open all windows and doors, turn off any suspicious appliances and leave the property.

It is important you do not wait in the property for symptoms to lesson as CO poisoning can and does affect oxygen to the brain and only a few minutes high concentration exposure can leave permanent damage.

If you experience suspected Carbon Monoxide poisoning everyone affected must stay calm, increasing your heart rate and in turn the frequency of your breaths can cause increased inhalation and lead to a higher concentration of CO in your blood stream.

Following the above it is important to;

  • See a doctor/go to hospital, tell them you suspect CO poisoning, they can perform a blood and breath test to be sure
  • Contact a Gas Safe registered engineer to inspect appliances and flues for any problems or blockages

Should you suspect anything further that could be dangerous, contact the National Gas Emergency line on 0800 111 999.

How can CO poisoning be prevented?

Carbon Monoxide occurrence and in turn poisoning can be avoided by;

  • Having your appliances checked annually by a certified Gas Safe engineer
  • Checking the gas flame regularly, it should be 'crisp and blue' rather than 'lazy and yellow/orange'
  • Checking for soot or dark stains around boilers, stove and fires
  • Making sure flues and chimneys are cleaned regularly to prevent blockages and smoke build up
  • Installing a noise emitting Carbon Monoxide alarm

You are most at risk of Carbon Monoxide poisoning during the night when everyone is asleep and doors and windows are generally closed so “colour changing” CO alarms will not be efficient enough to save lives. Make sure to get a CO alarm that exhibits a very high pitched noise when CO has been detected in the air.

When purchasing your own CO alarm, make sure it is marked to EN 50291 and has the British Standards' Kitemark displayed. Carbon Monoxide alarms are available in any Heat Group Supplies branch.


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