Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a deadly threat which can affect all homeowners if they do not take the correct precautions. Carbon monoxide is often referred to as the silent killer, because victims are normally completely unaware of what is happening to them. When you breathe in carbon monoxide , it combines with haemoglobin in the blood cells. This means that the haemoglobin is unable to carry oxygen around the body, so vital organs are unable to get the oxygen that they require. Tissue and cells in the body gradually start to shut down and they eventually wane and die. Staying vigilant about carbon monoxide poisoning can help to protect you and your family from the threat.

What Causes Carbon Monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide is produced by most types of fossil fuel combustion. When substances do not burn fully, carbon monoxide is released. Poorly maintained, poorly ventilated and incorrectly installed appliances, such as gas fires, boilers, water heaters, cookers, open fires and some types of central heating system, can put households at risk from carbon monoxide exposure. Cigarette smoke, charcoal and vehicle fumes also produce carbon monoxide. Drivers should never run their engine in an unventilated garage, as this can cause a fatal build-up of carbon monoxide fumes. Homeowners should have their appliances serviced regularly to reduce the risk of accidental exposure.

What are the Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning normally start off mild and then get gradually worse over time. The most common symptom during the early stages of poisoning is a tension-type headache. This may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness, tiredness, confusion and stomach pains. It is possible that these symptoms will improve if you move away from where the carbon monoxide is escaping from and then gradually worsen again if you return to the source.

If the concentration of carbon monoxide in the air is high, the symptoms will come on suddenly and can progress very quickly. Affected persons are likely to lose their memory, vision and balance within a few hours of exposure. They will eventually lose consciousness. Other symptoms of severe carbon monoxide poisoning include; a sense of intoxication, loss of physical coordination skills, breathlessness, increased heart rate, heart attack and seizures. If the concentration of carbon monoxide is high enough, death can occur within a matter of minutes.

Long term mild carbon monoxide poisoning can have lasting effects for those who are subjected to it. It is likely to cause neurological problems, including personality changes. Sufferers may become irrational, depressed or impulsive. Their emotional state can change regularly and they may have difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly. It can be very difficult for doctors to diagnose carbon monoxide poisoning based on these symptoms alone.

Lasting Effects of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Around 10 – 15% of people who have experienced severe carbon monoxide poisoning will suffer from long-term complications. These complications may include brain damage and heart disease. Long-term effects to the body can include; memory problems, difficulty concentrating, loss of vision or other senses, tremors, and increase susceptibility to heart attacks. Exposure can also affect unborn babies. Carbon monoxide exposure during pregnancy may lead to stillbirth, low birth weight and ongoing behavioural issues.

Staying Safe

You must make sure that you have a carbon monoxide alarm installed in your home. You may require more than one if you have a larger home or if you have a lot of risky appliances in different areas of your house. These alarms sound if they detect a dangerous level of carbon monoxide in the air. Carbon monoxide alarms only have a limited lifespan, so make sure you know when you need to replace the alarms.

You can reduce your risk further by ensuring that all of your appliances are serviced regularly. Poorly maintained equipment is more likely to leak. It is especially important that you work to make sure that all chimneys and flues at your property are kept free from blockages or debris, because a blocked flue could end up circulating carbon monoxide into your home.

Never use a barbeque in a confined area, because burning charcoal can produce higher concentrations of carbon monoxide. Never use a camping stove inside a tent, even if the weather is cold and miserable outside.

More safety tips can be found on the ROSPA website.

What to do if your Carbon Monoxide Alarm Sounds

Open up all of the doors and windows in your property and leave the building as soon as possible. Contact a boiler maintenance specialist to get them to come to your home to ascertain where the leak may be coming from. Advise them that your carbon monoxide alarm has sounded as soon as you speak to them. If you have experienced any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, you should visit your doctor to get your blood tested. You are advised to get tested the same day.