Each year around 50 people will die from carbon monoxide poisoning in the UK. Hundreds more will be treated in hospital.
Carbon monoxide is a highly poisonous gas that has no smell, taste or colour, making it one of the most dangerous industrial hazards in the UK and the home.
It is commonly referred to as the “silent killer” as it gives no advance warning of being in your environment.
Carbon monoxide is produced by the incomplete combustion (burning) of carbon-based fuels.
Fuel burning appliances which are poorly installed, faulty or used inefficiently are a major source of carbon monoxide exposure.
It is essential you’re adequately informed about this killer gas so that you can stop it before anyone gets hurt.
Below I’ve collected some frequently asked questions about carbon monoxide to give you a good foundation.
Where does carbon monoxide come from?
Carbon monoxide is produced during the incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels. This includes gas, oil, wood and coal, and occurs when there is not enough oxygen present to completely burn it.
Note that carbon-based fuels are normally safe when used properly and efficiently. It is when the fuel does not burn properly that carbon monoxide is produced.
This incomplete burning can happen when a gas appliance is not correctly fitted or well maintained. It can also occur if flues, chimneys or vents are blocked or not well ventilated.
Carbon monoxide can come from both common home appliances and workplace equipment. Such as gas or oil furnaces, gas refrigerators, gas ranges, gas water heaters, fireplaces, wood burning stoves, generators, vehicle engines and kitchen appliances.
What is carbon monoxide poisoning?
Carbon monoxide is made up of two elements, carbon and oxygen. When inhaled, it’s toxic to humans.
Poisoning occurs when the carbon monoxide enters our bloodstream and combines with the haemoglobin. The haemoglobin is the part of the red blood cell which normally carries oxygen to the cells within our body.
The poisonous carbon monoxide gas combines with the haemoglobin 210 times quicker than oxygen, taking up all the haemoglobin and preventing the oxygen from combining with the red blood cell. Ultimately not enough oxygen will reach your cells, including the vital organs.
If your cells don’t have enough oxygen, they will fail and die.
This can lead to serious health issues like suffocation, haemorrhaging and permanent damage of nerve tissues and cells, and possibly death.
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
Because carbon monoxide is colourless, odourless, and tasteless, it can be extremely hard to detect. This makes it incredibly important that you’re aware of the early physical symptoms and seek treatment as soon as possible.
Unfortunately even brief exposure to small amounts of the gas can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
Early symptoms can mimic ones of the flu or food poisoning, including:
- Shortness of breath
Although lower carbon monoxide levels do not kill immediately, it 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 carbon monoxide.
Breathing in high levels of CO can cause more serious symptoms, including:
- A loss of coordination
- Chest pain
- Loss of consciousness
- Extremely high levels of carbon monoxide can cause death within minutes.
Who is at risk?
Carbon monoxide poisoning is dangerous to everyone but may affect pregnant women and unborn babies, children and older adults moreso. Also people suffering from heart disease and respiratory problems such as asthma can be more readily endangered.
As carbon monoxide is a by-product of the incomplete burning of carbon-based fuel, any environment that relies on coal, gas, oil or wood will be at a higher risk. Especially those that work in small or enclosed areas.
Occupations like manufacturing workers, plant technicians, truck drivers, mechanics, miners and so on are more likely to be exposed to carbon monoxide in their daily job. Therefore they are at a higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
What signs should I look out for?
As carbon monoxide is so difficult to detect you must be aware of the other physical signs on equipment or appliances that it might be present.
There are several indicators such as:
- Flames that are yellow or orange where they should be blue. For example, the flames that you see on your gas hob.
- If you see soot or a yellow or brown staining on or around your appliances.
- A pilot light that frequently blows out
- More condensation inside windows.
- Carbon monoxide alarm being activated
What should I do if I suspect a leak?
If you suspect a leak, stop using all appliances that burn fuel immediately.
- Turn them off and begin ventilating the room by opening doors and windows.
- Evacuate the property immediately. Try to get into fresh air and stay calm.
- Call the gas emergency number on 0800 111 999 to report the incident.
- Don’t go back inside the building until the emergency services say it’s safe.
- Seek immediate medical help even if you believe you do not have any symptoms.
If you suspect carbon monoxide at work, you should immediately inform your health and safety manager. They will carry out an immediate and thorough investigation. If they fail to do so, they are breaking the law.
How is carbon monoxide poisoning treated?
The NHS advise that if you suspect you have been exposed to low levels of carbon monoxide then seek advice from your GP.
If you have been in contact with high levels of CO it is imperative that you go to your local A&E.
The best way to find out, other than your symptoms, will be to take a blood test.
A level of 30% of carbon monoxide in your bloodstream indicates severe exposure and you will likely be given standard oxygen therapy to treat the carbon monoxide poisoning.
Standard oxygen therapy involves using a mask to help you breathe in pure oxygen to replace the carbon monoxide that is in your body.
How can I prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?
Due to carbon monoxide being so hard to identify it’s important to understand and be aware of the dangers and to be proactive in taking sensible precautions to reduce the risk.
In both the home and workplace you must be aware and take precautions.
If you have an appliance that burns fuels you must make sure it is serviced and maintained by a competent person such as a reputable, registered engineer. Do not attempt to install or service appliances yourself, but you can try to keep it well maintained.
Maintain chimneys and flues by hiring a professional to regularly sweep it to keep them clear.
Be careful with engine exhaust fumes by not leaving the engine running in smaller enclosed areas. Also check for leaks and blockages in your exhaust.
Install carbon monoxide alarms to alert you if there is a CO leak. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommend installing at least one carbon monoxide detector per household.
Make sure rooms are well-ventilated and air vents are unblocked.
Don’t burn charcoal in an enclosed space.
If possible use electrical appliances instead of LPG or petrol ones to reduce the need to burn carbon.
In the workplace a thorough risk assessment is crucial on all equipment and appliances to check for poorly maintained, ageing or defective appliances.
A risk assessment must also check for adequate ventilation and machinerys efficiency and safety in terms of location, standard and operator usage.
In the workplace it is essential that all workers are trained to know how to use the equipment properly and to be aware of the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.