Last edited 24 Nov 2017

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, tasteless and odourless gas that is highly poisonous. It can cause serious damage to health if inhaled over a long period, and can quickly cause neurological damage, paralysis or death. Carbon monoxide poisoning is estimated to kill approximately 40 people a year in the UK, and to result in 1,100 hospital admissions, with children most at risk.

When carbon monoxide gas is breathed in it gets into the blood stream and behaves like oxygen, attaching itself to red blood cells which can then no longer carry oxygen. This leads to oxygen starvation and causes the cells and tissues to die.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include:

  • Headaches.
  • Breathlessness.
  • Drowsiness, dizziness or loss of consciousness.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Stomach or chest pains.
  • Visual problems.
  • Flu-like complaints.

However, people are particularly at risk when they are asleep as these symptoms may not be noticed. Carbon monoxide is sometimes referred to as the ‘silent killer’.

Carbon monoxide is produced when a combustion appliance, such as a boiler, heater, oven and so on, does not completely burn a carbon-based fuel. This might include fuels such as; gas, oil, paraffin, coal, wood or charcoal. Typically, fuel might not be completely burned if an appliance has been incorrectly installed or maintained or if vents chimneys or flues are blocked. It may also enter a property through shared chimneys or flues.

It is important to ensure that appliances are properly installed by suitably qualified installers (such as a HETAS approved installer or a Gas Safe Registered engineer) and that they are regularly serviced and maintained. Landlords are required to maintain gas appliances and to have annual gas safety checks carried out. From 1st October 2015, private landlords in England have been required to fit carbon monoxide detectors in every room with a solid fuel burning appliance. Detectors must be tested at the start of each tenancy, and penalties for failure to comply can be up to £5,000.

The fire service recommend that householders do not use appliances such as paraffin heaters, BBQ’s or cabinet heaters in their homes.

Because carbon monoxide is colourless, tasteless and odourless, it is difficult for people to detect. Signs that carbon monoxide might be being generated include:

  • Increased levels of condensation.
  • Problems with pilot lights.
  • Soot or yellow-brown staining on or around appliances.
  • Yellow or orange flames rather than blue flames.

In addition, the presence of carbon monoxide can be identified by carbon monoxide detectors. These can be standalone units, or combined units that also operate as smoke detectors. Typically, an audible alarm is sounded if carbon monoxide is detected.

Detectors should have a EN 50291 mark and a British Standards' Kitemark (or equivalent European mark). They should be installed in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions, typically at head height in each room with a combustion appliance. They should be tested regularly, and batteries replaced as required. Ideally they should give a warning when batteries are approaching the end of their life.

Sprue’s initiative 'Project SHOUT' is intended to raise awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide gas and to highlight the importance of having carbon monoxide alarms in your home.

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