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Awareness

Carbon Monoxide – how to spot the signs something is wrong

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Could you tell the difference between the flu, food poisoning a hangover or carbon monoxide poisoning?

Read on to find out what to do if you suspect a carbon monoxide leak.

First of all what is carbon monoxide and why is it a problem?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odourless, colourless, tasteless poisonous gas developed by carbon-based fuels. Carbon-based fuels are safe to use, it is only when the fuel is not burned properly that is excess amounts of CO is produced, which is poisonous. If CO enters the body it prevents blood from bringing oxygen to cells, tissues and organs. You can’t not see it, taste it or smell it but it kills quickly without warning. HSE statistics say around 20 people die from CO poisoning caused by gas appliances and flues not being installed correctly, maintained or poorly ventilated.

What preventative measures can I take against carbon monoxide exposure?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Always make sure there is enough fresh air in the room containing your gas appliance. If you have a chimney or a flue, ensure it is not blocked up and also ensure that vents are not covered.
  • If you plan to install a gas fire in a bedroom, use a Gas Safe Registered engineer; do not use unflued appliances like paraffin heaters and cabinet heaters.
  • Get your chimney swept from top to bottom at least once a year by a qualified sweep.
  • If you have appliances that use other fossil fuels, make sure they are serviced and maintained by a competent person.
Does HSE recommend the use of carbon monoxide alarms?

HSE strongly recommends the use of audible carbon monoxide (CO) alarms as a useful back-up 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 Kite mark. CO alarms should be installed, checked and serviced in line with the manufacturer’s instructions.

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:

  • Headaches
  • Breathlessness
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Collapse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Tiredness
  • Drowsiness
  • Vomiting
  • Pains in the chest
  • Stomach pains
  • Erratic behaviour
  • Visual problems

For more information visit the NHS website 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 (apart from fuel effect fires or flueless appliances which display this colour flame)
  • 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 reuse until remedial action has been taken
  • Shut off the gas supply at the meter control valve (if you know where it is). If gas continues to escape call National Grid on the Gas Emergency Free phone Number 0800 111 999
  • 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
  • Contact a Gas Safe Registered Engineer to make repairs

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