What is Carbon Monoxide?

Find out about carbon monoxide and how to stay safe

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Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odorless, tasteless gas that is produced when household fuels such as gas, coal and wood do not burn properly, usually because an appliance has been fitted incorrectly, is faulty or is in a poor state of repair. The problem is made worse by poor ventilation.

A gas hob

CO is a lethal gas, killing up to 50 people a year in the UK. But it is difficult to detect, which is why we should all be alert to the dangers of CO poisoning and take steps to protect our home and our loved ones.  

Health risks

When you inhale carbon monoxide, it enters your bloodstream and inhibits the red blood cells from carrying oxygen around your body. If you inhale enough CO, it can kill you. But even small amounts can cause sickness or other serious conditions such as paralysis or brain damage. 

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

The symptoms vary according to the amount of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream, but they include headaches, nausea, dizziness and breathlessness. In severe cases, a person could collapse or lose consciousness. Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable, as are pregnant women and people with heart disease or asthma.

The symptoms are similar to the flu virus, although there will be no raised temperature. You might be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning if you notice one or more of the above symptoms and if you feel better when you leave the house. Also check whether anyone else in your home is ill, including any pets. 

Tell-tale signs

Carbon monoxide isn’t easy to detect but you should be on your guard for a number of warning signs. For example, the flame on your cooker or boiler should be strong and blue. If it is yellow or orange, the appliance could be faulty. Look out, too, for dark stains around the appliance, increased condensation or a pilot light that frequently blows out. 

What to do

If you think you are at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, turn off the appliance, open the doors and windows and call the National Gas Emergency Service on 0800 111 999. You should also visit your GP who can arrange a test for CO. 

Gas Safe engineer

You can help prevent carbon dioxide poisoning by making sure that any gas appliances in your home are fitted by a Gas Safe registered engineer with the appropriate qualifications. Your appliances should also be serviced regularly and well maintained. Make sure, too, that the area is adequately ventilated and there is nothing blocking any flues or air vents. If you have a real fire in your home, the chimney should be swept once a year by a qualified sweep.   

CO alarm

Carbon monoxide has no colour, smell or taste, which is why every home should have a CO detector – with an alarm. You are particularly at risk from CO poisoning when you are asleep so you need to be woken up by an alarm if the gas is present. CO alarms are similar to smoke alarms and cost about £15. Always make sure the alarm is marked to EN 50291 and meets British or European safety standards.

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