Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – The invisible enemy

Carbon Monoxide PoisoningIt is silent and invisible, it has no scent nor taste and, worst of all it is deadly. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas that kills and it could creep into your home with awful consequences. Government statistics tell us that around 4,000 people go to accident and emergency departments, 200 people are hospitalised and there are 40 deaths each year in England and Wales directly due to carbon monoxide poisoning.* Even the lightest of leaks can cause serious health problems which are difficult to diagnose. So what can you do to ensure no one in your household becomes a victim of this deadly gas?

At Billings we take safety very seriously. In this article we explain what carbon monoxide gas is, where it comes from, how it harms people and, most importantly, what preventative measures you can take to keep you and your family safe.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas produced from the burning of carbon based fuels that have not fully burned away. The fuels are common domestic and industrial fuels used for heating, cooking and even decorative effect. These fuels include natural gas, coal, oil, wood, charcoal and paraffin. These are generally safe to use, it is only when they are not completely burned that the deadly gas is produced.

If you ask people about sources of carbon monoxide leaks, they invariably think of domestic gas boilers. It is often gas boilers that we read about in newspaper articles about poisonings. However, all carbon based fuels can produce carbon monoxide, so anywhere these fuels are burned is liable to be a source. In addition to gas appliances open fires, wood or solid fuel burning stoves and even disposable barbeques can all produce carbon monoxide.


Fit a Carbon monoxide Alarm

  • Make sure it complies with British Standard 50291
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation and maintenance
  • Ensure the alarm is audible
  • An alarm is NOT a substitute for preventative measures
  • Check that the alarm is working regularly

How does Carbon monoxide harm people?

People are in danger of harm when carbon monoxide is breathed in and enters the bloodstream.  The carbon monoxide stops oxygen getting to the major organs, the brain and cells of the body. Substantial exposure to carbon monoxide can render people unconscious. More insidious are very small leaks breathed in over a period of time. This latter long-term exposure is also very difficult to diagnose as symptoms are similar to those of common illnesses. Some people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the gas. These include babies, young children and pregnant women and also those with particular diseases, such as respiratory and chronic heart disease.

You will be unaware there’s a leak. Carbon monoxide cannot be seen, smelt nor tasted; this invisibility is part of its noxious nature. Carbon monoxide poisoning can kill and even survivors can be left with paralysis or brain damage.

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Some Symptoms of Carbon monoxide poisoning

  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Vomiting
  • Chest / stomach pains
  • Collapse / loss of consciousness

Drowsiness, collapse and loss of consciousness are symptoms that are frightening and for which people will take immediate action. However many of the symptoms as a result of low exposure over a period of time are less obvious. In cases such as these, carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult to diagnose as there are numerous symptoms that are similar to common ailments such as flu, colds, viruses, food poisoning, headaches and dizziness.

If you are in doubt there’s a lot of information on the NHS website. If anyone in your family experiences any of the symptoms and you suspect carbon monoxide get advice as soon as possible, including calling NHS Direct 111.

What can you do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?

The most important part of this article!

When the fuels are burned they need to burn completely and for the gases produced to escape. Chimneys and flues have to be correctly fitted and well-maintained to ensure any gases are able to discharge safely and not seep back into rooms. Good ventilation is necessary, especially with disposable barbeques, which can be deadly if burned in a confined space.

Billings are experts at the construction, maintenance and repair of chimneys and flues. In addition to keeping them clear of blockages and debris they need also to be checked for cracks. It is through small cracks that carbon monoxide can seep and this can be into any room along the chimney or flue’s length.

What are the best preventative measures?

  • Invest in a good quality carbon monoxide detector and ensure it is loud enough to wake you if asleep
  • Ensure all appliances, including wood-burning stoves, are fitted by a qualified engineer, whether in domestic or commercial premises
  • The installing engineers should be Gas Safe Registered for gas appliances and HETAS approved, such as Billing, for wood-burning and solid fuel burning stoves
  • Keep the appliance well maintained and serviced
  • Have the chimney or flue regularly checked and swept by a qualified sweep
  • Make sure that any air vents are not obstructed or covered
  • If you are in rented accommodation your landlord will have the gas appliances checked annually – they must also give you a copy of the certificate presented by the engineer. It is wise to follow the same procedure with solid fuel appliances
  • Leave disposable barbeques outside, these produce large amounts of carbon monoxide when the embers have died down. Never take them indoors or into a structure such as a tent
  • Keep rooms well ventilated when using an appliance

Are there any signs to look out for that might indicate there’s a leak?

  • Are the flames on the appliance orange or yellow rather than the usual blue?
  • Is there any soot or brown / yellow discolouration around the appliance?
  • Does the pilot light keep going out?
  • Has there recently been a fall of soot from your chimney indicating it might be blocked?
  • Have you recently had building work done that may have created cracks in flues?
  • Remember, it’s not only in the home, other places at risk include appliances in mobile homes, caravans and boats as they often use bottled fuels. Car engines also produce carbon monoxide
  • If you are at all concerned, call out an expert

A well-maintained appliance or stove and their accompanying fuels are perfectly safe if they are professionally installed and regularly checked and maintained. Billings use state-of the art CCTV to check chimneys and flues for cracks and other damage.  Make sure you are aware of the potential dangers of carbon monoxide, and why not pass this article on, it could save a life.

If you’d like a chimney inspection to make sure your chimney is safe, please get in touch or please see our Chimney Inspection service page for more information.

*Department of Health November 2013


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