What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, poisonous gas produced by incomplete burning of carbon-based fuels. This includes gas, oil, wood and coal. Carbon-based fuels are safe to use. It is only when the fuel does not burn properly that excess CO is produced, which is poisonous. Blood is prevented from supplying oxygen to cells, tissues, and organs when CO enters the body.
First of all, CO cannot be sensed using human senses of smell, taste, sight or touch. It can kill in between one and three minutes with less than 2% of CO in the air . As a result seven people die every year from CO poisoning, according to the HSE. These are caused by gas appliances and flues that haven’t been properly installed and maintained or that are not properly ventilated. Even when levels are not high enough to kill, if they have been breathed in over a long period of time there can be serious harm to health. In extreme cases paralysis and brain damage can be caused as a result of prolonged exposure to CO at low levels.
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
Initially the early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be confused with food poisoning, viral infections, flu or simple tiredness. The symptoms to look out for are:
- headaches or dizziness
- loss of consciousness
- pains in the chest or stomach
- erratic behaviour
- visual problems
How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
- Make sure all appliances are properly installed by competent people according to the manufacturer’s instructions. By law only Registered Gas Engineers (RGEs) can work on a gas appliance. The Gas Safe Register (GSR) is licensed by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).
- Above all appliances must be maintained regularly by a competent person.
- Ensure adequate ventilation so that there is enough oxygen at the flame to produce CO2 not CO.
- Make sure chimneys and flues are swept and checked by a sweep belonging to a recognised trade association. Appliances that don’t have flues can be extremely dangerous.
- Use a CO alarm/detector to EN50291, make sure that you buy one from a reputable supplier.
Landlords are legally required to obtain a gas safety check and certificate but sadly there is no mandatory requirement to test the gas appliances for CO. However, most gas engineers do test using a flue gas analyser and we suggest tenants and landlords ask for this and the measurement found, ideally in writing.
Sadly, installers of appliance burning other fuels such as gas, oil and wood are not required to be registered by law. Data shows so far that the risks of CO are higher with regard to the other fuels.
More information can be found here.