Carbon monoxide is commonly known as the “silent killer” because it’s a toxic gas that can kill people very quickly, before they even realise what’s happening. Odourless, colourless and tasteless, it can be too late by the time the effects become apparent.
If the concentration of carbon monoxide in the home is very high, the householder may lose consciousness and won’t be able to escape the danger. In the UK alone, studies show around 250,000 homes are at risk of having an excess of the gas. Carbon monoxide poisoning accounts for 50 deaths per year.
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It is also the reason for up to 4,000 medical visits, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Health. A study by the manufacturer of Nest Protect, a carbon monoxide detection device, found that over a seven-month period, the carbon monoxide level in affected homes reached up to 452 parts per million.
Medical research shows that a carbon monoxide level of between 150 and 200 parts per million is dangerous – and possibly fatal. Even exposure to a level as low as 70 parts per million can leave you feeling as if you’re coming down with influenza.
Common sources of carbon monoxide
Carbon monoxide can be found both indoors and outdoors. It is produced by burning fuels, including wood, natural gas, oil, kerosene, propane, coal and gasoline. It is mainly due to vehicle exhaust fumes outdoors. Inside the home, it is commonly caused by appliances that use carbon monoxide-producing fuel.
The background level of carbon monoxide in the home varies, depending on the fuels you use for cooking and heating. According to the World Health Organisation, the indoor air level should have a maximum of nine parts carbon monoxide per million parts of air over any period of eight hours.
Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms
It’s very important that any early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are noticed and acted upon – before it is too late. The consequences can be potentially fatal. Initial symptoms can be mistaken for flu – these can include a headache, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, a tight chest, weakness, loss of muscle control, visual disturbances, feeling sleepy, fluttering of the heart, feeling confused, red skin and slower reaction times. It’s vital that you investigate anything unusual
If more than one member of the family is experiencing the symptoms but then start to feel better when they are away from the house for a period of time, carbon monoxide should be suspected. A high level of continued exposure can cause suffocation, brain damage, loss of consciousness, or even death.
If you have flu-like symptoms, try and differentiate them from carbon monoxide poisoning. Ascertain whether the symptoms worsen after you turn on a fuel-burning device such as a heater, generator or appliance. It usually takes a few days for flu to be passed on from person to person, so if everyone in the house falls sick at the same time, this should arouse suspicion.
What can you do to prevent this?
If you fear you’ve already suffered poisoning in your home, leave the area quickly to get fresh air. Turn off non-electrical appliances if you are able to do so and leave the doors and windows open as you exit. Contact the fire service, your gas company or heating contractor.
As carbon monoxide is odourless, the symptoms may strike with no warning and suddenly you will feel worse, so leave the premises for fresh air immediately – it could save your life. Contact the relevant organisations from outdoors.
Make sure you have working carbon monoxide alarms in your home. They look similar to smoke alarms and will warn you if carbon monoxide levels are reaching dangerous levels. They are available to purchase, but if you live in a rented property, by law the landlord should provide them.
Select an alarm that is battery-powered, or has a battery back-up. Place it in an appropriate place, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Alarms should be tested, and batteries should be replaced regularly – at least twice a year. Make sure you read the manual, so you fully understand the warning signs.
Don’t use the alarm as a substitute for having regular maintenance of any fuel-burning appliances, as this is important too.
Take sensible precautions, such as never operating fuel-powered equipment in a basement or other enclosed spaces and never using a gas oven to provide warmth. Don’t use a gas or charcoal barbecue grill indoors and make sure gas heaters are properly installed and ventilated.
UK law for rental properties
In the United Kingdom, legislation is in place to protect residents of rented properties from carbon monoxide poisoning. Landlords must adhere to the requirements of the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015.
They must install a carbon monoxide alarm in rooms where there is an appliance that burns solid fuel, such as a wood-burning stove. The landlord must ensure the alarms are in full working order at the start of a new tenancy. If a landlord doesn’t comply with a remedial notice, they face a £5,000 fine from the local authority.
To be most effective, the carbon monoxide alarm must be placed at head height, either on a shelf or wall, between one and three metres from a potential source. While alarms are required by law in rooms where there’s a solid fuel burning appliance, landlords are also encouraged to place one in any room where there is a gas appliance.
The government encourages householders to read the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm Regulations for further information.
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