Carbon monoxide can’t be seen, smelled or tasted, but it can kill quickly. Even if not fatal, carbon monoxide poisoning can make you very unwell, and prolonged exposure can lead to long-term health problems including brain damage. It is therefore important to be aware of its dangers and the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas which cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. It is created when carbon-based fuels such as gas, oil, wood or coal are not burned in the right conditions. This is usually when there is not enough oxygen present during the burning process, for example when burning wood or coal in a fireplace with a blocked flue.
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
Carbon monoxide poisoning is often mistaken for flu, viral infection or food poisoning, as its symptoms are very similar. They include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness or confusion
- Chest pain or shortness of breath
- Weakness or collapse
- Loss of consciousness
Due to the vaguness of these symptoms, it is important to be aware of these additional signs which could suggest a carbon monoxide leak:
- Your symptoms only occur when you are at home
- Your symptoms go away or improve when you are away from home
- Other people in your household are also experiencing symptoms, which appear at a similar time
It is also worth noting that if you are sleeping or are perhaps already unwell or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is possible to be exposed to a fatal level of carbon monoxide before you even display or recognise any symptoms.
What should I do if I suspect that I have carbon monoxide poisoning?
- Switch off the appliance and do not use it again until it has been properly inspected by a Gas Safe registered professional
- Get fresh air immediately and open windows and doors to get air into your home
- Seek immediate medical attention, whether from your doctor or a hospital, and inform them that you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning
- If you are concerned about an immediate danger from your gas appliance, call the Gas Emergency Helpline on 0800 111 999
- Your gas appliances and flues should be checked for signs of problems by a Gas Safe registered engineer before you use them again
What appliances are susceptible to carbon monoxide leaks?
Anything which burns a fossil fuel could put you at risk of a carbon monoxide leak.
While gas, oil, wood and coal themselves are not dangerous to use, it is faulty or poorly maintained appliances or improper burning conditions which cause carbon monoxide to be made. You must always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines when using any fuel-burning appliances and only purchase appliances which adhere to relevant safety standards.
It is important to ensure that the following appliances undergo regular inspection:
- Gas boilers and heating systems
- Gas ovens and hobs
- Gas fires or heaters
- Chimneys, fireplaces and flues
- Wood burning stoves
How do I protect against carbon monoxide leaks in my home?
To protect your home against carbon monoxide leaks, you should always make sure to adhere to the following:
- Get any gas, oil, coal or wood burning appliances regularly serviced by a Gas Safe registered engineer once a year
- Get your chimney inspected or cleaned once a year
- Install a carbon monoxide alarm in your home and ensure that its batteries are regularly changed
- Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters, gas camping stoves, disposable barbecues or any other similar fuel-burning items inside your home
- Never burn charcoal indoors
- Only purchase fuel-burning equipment which carries the mark of a national testing agency or safety standard
- Make sure that your gas appliances are properly vented
- Never patch a vent pipe
- Do not use a gas range or oven for the purpose of heating your home
- Do not use a generator in side your home, basement or garage, or anywhere that is less than 20ft from a window, door or vent
What are the signs of carbon monoxide leaks in the home?
Along with the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, you should also be aware of the signs of potential carbon monoxide leaks in your home. These include:
- Yellow or orange cooker flames, rather than crisp blue flames
- Dark stains on or around gas appliances
- Pilot lights which frequently go out
- Increased condensation on the insides of your windows
If you notice any of these signs, you should switch off the appliance and get a Gas Safe registered engineer to inspect it. If you fail to do so, you could be putting yourself and your family at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Do I need a carbon monoxide alarm?
As it cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, an audible carbon monoxide alarm is essential to alert you to the presence of dangerous carbon monoxide leaks. They can be purchased from supermarkets, DIY stores, energy suppliers or online for just a few pounds and could prove invaluable should you encounter a leak.
When purchasing an alarm, make sure that it adheres to the European safety standard EN 50291 and that it features The British Standards Institution’s Kitemark. You should always adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions for setting up, maintaining, testing and replacing your alarm to ensure that it remains in safe working order.
Make sure that you regularly replace the batteries in your alarm. Be careful not to place your alarm within 5ft of fuel burning appliances, as this may cause false alarms and is likely to mean that the alarm could be ignored in the case of an actual leak.
It should be noted that the use of a carbon monoxide alarm is an additional precaution and does not mean that you do not need to have your gas appliances regularly inspected by a Gas Safe registered engineer.
While ‘black spot’ colour change detectors are available, they are not recommended as they need to be visually checked in order to ascertain if there has been a leak. This is both easy to forget and will not wake you should there be a carbon monoxide leak while you are asleep, which is when people are most vulnerable to its effects.
VHL are Gas Safe registered and here to help
Here at VHL, all of our engineers are Gas Safe registered, meaning that you can be sure that any of our installations, inspections and repairs are completed to the highest standards of safety. Remember that regular inspections of your gas appliances are essential to their continual safe use and could prevent a deadly carbon monoxide leak.
Get in touch with us to arrange an engineer to perform your important safety checks or for any necessary gas appliance repairs.
For more information about gas safety and carbon monoxide poisoning, take a look at Gas Safe Register’s website.