Carbon Monoxide (also known as CO) is a colourless, odourless poisonous gas and is a common yet preventable cause of death from poisoning worldwide. Approximately half of the deaths from unintentional CO poisonings result from the inhalation of smoke from fires. Other significant causes are vehicle exhausts and deaths in industrial / commercial settings. On average between 1 and 2 people die each year in Ireland from unintentional CO poisoning in the home in incidents related to domestic heating or other fossil fuel installations in the home (i.e. excluding the inhalation of smoke from fires).
The incomplete combustion of organic fossil fuels such as oil, gas or coal is a common environmental source of CO and is responsible for many cases of non-fatal unintentional CO poisoning.
In normal conditions the combustion process (the addition of oxygen) will result in carbon in the fossil fuel, combining with oxygen, in the air, to produce Carbon Dioxide (CO2), the same substance we exhale when we breathe.
However, if there is a lack of air for the combustion process or the heating appliance is faulty, Carbon Monoxide can be produced.
When CO is inhaled into the body it combines with the blood, preventing it from absorbing oxygen. If a person is exposed to CO over a period, it can cause illness and even death.
Carbon Monoxide has no smell, taste or colour. This is why it is sometimes called the "Silent Killer".
Carbon Monoxide alarms can be used as a backup to provide a warning to householders in the event of a dangerous build up of CO. Check that the Carbon Monoxide alarm complies with the EN 50291 standard. Remember that Carbon Monoxide alarms are no substitute for regular inspection and maintenance of appliances, vents, flues and chimneys.
Causes of CO Poisoning
You can be in danger of Carbon Monoxide poisoning at home if dangerous amounts of Carbon Monoxide accumulate in the home. This can happen as a result of any or a combination of the following:
Faulty or damaged heating appliances
Heating appliance not maintained or serviced
Rooms not properly ventilated
Blocked chimneys or flues
Indoor use of a barbecue grill or outdoor heater
Poor installation of heating appliances
Improper operation of heating appliances
Property alterations or home improvements, which reduce ventilation
Running engines such as vehicles or lawnmowers in garages
Using cooking appliances for heating purposes
Symptoms of CO Poisoning
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning can be similar to those caused by other illnesses such as a cold or flu. They include
Unexplained headaches, chest pains or muscular weakness
Sickness, diarrhoea or stomach pains
Sudden dizziness when standing up
What to Do?
If anyone in your house has any of the symptoms outlined above get fresh air immediately, then go to your doctor and ask him/her to check for Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
Stop using the appliance immediately and do not use it again until it has been checked by a registered installer or a qualified service agent.
The amount of CO which the blood absorbs depends chiefly on two things: how much CO is in the air and the time of the exposure. Adverse effects of CO on humans are reduced by periods of breathing fresh air. The degree of recovery depends on the number and length of those periods. The general state of health and degree of physical activity of a person exposed to CO are other factors involved in the effects of Carbon Monoxide on the body.