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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Questions Answered

Commonly asked questions about carbon monoxide poisoning, including what it is, causes, symptoms and prevention in 2019 from Builders Merchants C & W Berry.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon Monoxide is a colourless, tasteless and odourless gas. It is among the most toxic compounds produced by combustion. It is created when fuels such as gas, coal, wood and charcoal are burned or by petrol engines.

CO gas is highly poisonous to humans as it enters the bloodstream when inhaled. The carbon monoxide exposure hinders and inhibits the haemoglobins’ capacity to distribute oxygen around the body. Haemoglobin has a very high affinity to bind with Oxygen, but carbon monoxide is a very aggressive molecule. It displaces the Oxygen and Carboxyhaemoglobin forms.

This prevention of oxygen reaching the cells within the body causes them to fail and die. The brain and heart are particularly vulnerable.

Carbon Monoxide PoisoningCarbon Monoxide Poisoning
“There are approximately 400 admissions to hospital with Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning in England each year and around 40-50 deaths.”

“CO is found in fumes produced any time you burn fuel in cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, or furnaces. CO can build up indoors and poison people and animals who breathe it.”

What Causes a Leak of Carbon Monoxide?

The most common causes of accidental exposure to Carbon Monoxide include; incorrectly installed, poorly maintained or poorly ventilated appliances. In confined, sealed environments such as mobile homes, caravans or boats, the exposure risks can be increased as ventilation is reduced.

Other possible causes of carbon monoxide poisoning include:


1. Blocked flues and chimneys

This can stop carbon monoxide escaping, allowing it to reach dangerous levels burning fuel in an enclosed or unventilated space.

2. Burning fuel in an enclosed or unventilated space

For example, running a car engine, petrol-powered generator or barbecue inside a garage, or a faulty boiler in an enclosed kitchen.

3. Faulty or blocked car exhausts

A leak or blockage in the exhaust pipe, such as after heavy snowfall, could lead to a build-up of carbon monoxide.

Exhaust FumesExhaust Fumes

4. Paint fumes

Some cleaning fluids and paint removers contain methylene chloride (dichloromethane), which can cause carbon monoxide poisoning if breathed in.

5. Smoking shisha pipes indoors

Shisha pipes burn charcoal and tobacco, which can lead to a build-up of carbon monoxide in enclosed or unventilated rooms.

Professional Installation and Maintenance is Key

Installation and Maintenance of potential CO sources should be carried out by reputable, registered engineers. Such registrations will differ according to the appliance but could include;

  • The Gas Safety Register for gas appliances
  • The Oil Firing Technical Association OFTEC for oil appliances
  • The Heating Equipment Testing & Approval Scheme HETAS for solid fuel appliances

Chimneys and flues should also be swept regularly. Recognised sweep registrations include NASC, APICS and the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps. Ensuring expert installation and maintenance of appliances is not the complete solution; the potential for CO to leak is reduced but not removed.

Do You Know the Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

As CO poisoning is often described as a ‘Silent Killer’ the NHS explain that the symptoms of this type of poisoning are not always immediately obvious especially when exposure levels are low.

Initial symptoms can include:

The symptoms of exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can be similar to those of food poisoning and flu. But unlike flu, carbon monoxide poisoning doesn't cause a high temperature (fever).”

Such reactions could fluctuate if the person exposed is going to and from the area of contamination. These indicators will gradually worsen if exposure continues.

The longer you are exposed to the gas other symptoms can occur, these may manifest as; difficulty concentrating, frequent emotional changes, difficulty thinking clearly, becoming depressed or making irrational decisions.

“Install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Place your detector where it will wake you up if it alarms, such as outside your bedroom… Replace your CO detector every five years.”

2019 CO Poisoning Prevention - What's On?

Direct Booking Tourist Accommodation Sites - a particular focus for the All Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group (APPCOG) in 2019. They have concerns that all preventative alarms and checks are not necessarily in place in tourist accommodation booked directly online and they are seeking clarity, and the tightening of health and safety regulations.

“Direct-booking sites lack clarity on safety regulations, such as CO alarms and gas safety certificates. If hosts don’t understand their duty to safeguard guests then this will increase the risk of CO poisoning faced by holidaymakers, and it is unclear what regulation govern those who hire out their homes on direct booking sites. To address this, we will work to tighten health and safety regulation around direct booking sites and those who use them.”

Boats – In April 2019 mandatory regulations ensuring that BSS kitemark boats (Boats Safety Scheme) have Carbon Monoxide Alarms in place and checks will be carried out. Sources of CO on a boat could be; generators, engines or open flame devices, and boats are good container for gas and fumes. The regulatory aim is to protect boat users from Carbon Monoxide with early efficient warnings. CO detectors alarm at low concentration levels of CO to give people time to react. Advice recommends that if the CO alarm sounds sources of CO should be shut off (if it is safe to do so), then occupants should get out into fresh air and seek medical attention immediately.

Festivals - The APPCOG are also exploring during 2019 the need for increased awareness of CO dangers at festivals such as large music festivals. They are providing information to enhance understanding and awareness of festival goers to the potential risks from items such as disposable barbeques.

Gas Safety Week – This annual focus week will continue in 2019, taking place between 16 - 22 September, the aim once again is to raise awareness of potential CO dangers.

Have You Got a Carbon Monoxide Alarm?

Perhaps this is the most important question.

Carbon Monoxide AlarmCarbon Monoxide Alarm