A guide to carbon monoxide safety: how to spot carbon monoxide poisoning
15 January 2021 | Celia Topping
Many of us are probably familiar with the queasiness of a hangover – but what if that headache, dizziness and nausea is something more sinister?
Every year, around 60 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning, and thousands more are hospitalised. These are totally preventable deaths. Being aware of the causes, signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning could save your life.
Read on to find out how to protect yourself, your family and your home from carbon monoxide poisoning.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (chemical formula, CO) is a highly toxic gas. It’s known as the “silent killer” because it can’t be seen, smelt or tasted. Breathing in this poisonous gas for even a short time can cause long-term organ damage, or even death.
How does carbon monoxide affect the body?
You can unknowingly breathe in carbon monoxide as easily as normal air, because it causes no irritation to your nose or throat. The carbon monoxide then builds up in your bloodstream – your body replaces the healthy oxygen in your red blood cells with toxic carbon monoxide, starving your organs of the oxygen they need. This can very quickly lead to serious damage.
How is carbon monoxide produced?
Carbon monoxide is produced when carbon-containing fuels, such as coal, oil, charcoal, wood, kerosene, natural gas and propane, are not burned fully.
Common myths about carbon monoxide
- Carbon monoxide (CO) is sometimes confused with carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is the gas breathed out by humans. It’s also a greenhouse gas that occurs when fossil fuels are burned, contributing to climate change. Carbon monoxide isn’t a direct greenhouse gas.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning is not always caused by faulty appliances. It can simply be caused by lack of good ventilation. A gas boiler might be operating normally, but if the ventilation system is blocked, carbon monoxide could vent back into your home.
- Many people don’t consider carbon monoxide a serious problem. But it affects 1,000s of UK residents every year.
What is gas used for in our homes?
Two-thirds of UK homes use gas appliances for heating, or cooking, or both – as well as for other everyday domestic appliances like clothes dryers or lighting fixtures. It’s the second most common fuel in UK homes after electricity. Any faulty gas appliance has the potential to leak carbon monoxide. And even appliances that aren’t faulty could cause problems if they’re not ventilated properly. But by following simple gas safety advice, you can keep your home safe, and avoid any unnecessary risks.
What are the risks of using gas in our homes?
Modern gas appliances are rigorously checked to a high industry standard, so are as safe as possible. But many homes have old appliances. There are 2 potential dangers:
- If an appliance is broken, it can cause a gas leak, which you can smell. This can lead to a fire or explosion if not dealt with immediately.
If you think you can smell gas, call your regional gas emergency number, and they'll give you advice on what to do to stay safe.
- If an appliance, such as your hob, or boiler, isn’t maintained properly, the gas might be burning incompletely. When gas isn’t burned fully, carbon monoxide is released. This has no smell or taste.
What are the signs of a carbon monoxide leak?
It’s vital that you’re aware of any signs of carbon monoxide in your home. So check regularly for:
- An orange or yellow flame on your gas hob, instead of the usual blue
- Dark, sooty stains around gas appliances
- More condensation than normal inside your windows
- The pilot light on your boiler frequently blowing out
If you notice any of the above, please call your regional gas emergency number, and they'll advise you what to do.
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be mistaken for something else, like a flu, food poisoning, a hangover, or just feeling “under the weather”. It’s crucial that you do not ignore any of these signs. Your life could depend on it. The 6 main symptoms are:
- Loss of consciousness
Signs that indicate carbon monoxide poisoning, rather than something else include:
- Symptoms at home, but which seem to disappear when you leave
- Other members of your household (including pets) feel unwell with the same symptoms, at the same time
Check the NHS website for more information.
What to do if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning
Every second counts if you suspect carbon monoxide is in the air. Follow these steps:
- Stop using all gas appliances. You can turn off all gas appliances at once by using the “emergency control valve”, found on the pipes leading into your gas meter.
- Open all doors and windows to get fresh air inside.
- Get outside as soon as possible. Stay calm and try not to raise your heart rate.
- Call your regional gas emergency number.
- Seek immediate medical help, as you may not know how badly you’ve been affected. Just being in fresh air alone isn’t enough.
- DO NOT go back into your home. Wait for the emergency services.
Read more about what to do in a gas emergency in our guide.
How is someone with carbon monoxide poisoning treated?
If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, you must get to a hospital as soon as possible. There you’ll be given a blood or breath test.
The only treatment is inhaling 100% concentrated oxygen. This will be given to you through a tight-fitting mask. Breathing in high-dose oxygen lowers the carbon monoxide in your bloodstream. Although the immediate danger may be over, exposure to carbon monoxide can have very serious long-term effects – such as brain damage and heart problems.
How to protect you and your family from carbon monoxide poisoning
There are some common-sense steps you can take to minimise the risk of a potentially dangerous situation:
- Have all your fuel-burning appliances inspected by a trained Gas Safe -registered expert every year.
- Make sure any new fuel-burning appliances are professionally installed and ventilated. Get them regularly serviced by a Gas Safe-registered expert.
- Get carbon monoxide detectors installed in your home by a Gas Safe-registered expert.
What is a carbon monoxide detector or alarm?
The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your home from carbon monoxide poisoning is installing some carbon monoxide detectors. They are your first line of defence.
A carbon monoxide detector sounds an audible alarm when carbon monoxide is detected. They work in a similar way to smoke or fire alarms. It’s a good idea to put one in every room where there’s a gas appliance, to be completely safe. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s fitting instructions carefully. And remember to test it’s working properly every 3 months.
For more guidance on where to install your carbon monoxide detector, read our guide.
You can ask a Gas Safe-registered expert for advice on which one to buy. Or take a look at this useful, comprehensive guide by Which?, on how to choose a carbon monoxide detector. They also have a list of some alarms you should avoid. Make sure you’re in the know.
Always check for the British kitemark. This certifies the product has been tested by the British Standards Institute for quality and safety.
Who’s responsible for installing carbon monoxide detectors?
If you own your own home, you’re directly responsible for installing these alarms. Make sure to test them every 3 months, just like a smoke detector.
If you're renting, you can ask your landlord to get these alarms installed for you. It’s still your responsibility to test them every 3 months, though. Make a note on your calendar.
Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning around your home
As well as getting appliances regularly checked and installing alarms, here are some simple guidelines to follow, to keep your home safe:
In your garage
- Never leave your car in the confined space of your garage to let it warm up. Carbon monoxide is found in car exhaust fumes.
- Don’t run lawnmowers or other gas-powered engine devices in your garage or shed. Confined spaces allow too much carbon monoxide to build up.
- Never use an oven or grill to heat your garage or home.
In your car
- Don’t ignore even a minor collision. If the prang has caused a break in the exhaust system, you wouldn’t know if it’s leaking carbon monoxide into your car.
- If you’re stationary in the car, and decide to keep the engine running to stay warm, make sure there’s nothing blocking the exhaust pipe. A blocked exhaust pipe can cause carbon monoxide to circulate inside the car.
In your home
- Never use a cooking appliance – oven, grill or camp stove – to heat your home
- Replace old heating and air-conditioning units with modern models
- Check your heating and air-conditioning system is installed and inspected every year by a trained professional
How can I book a gas safety check?
If you own your home, you can book an annual gas safety check. The Gas Safe Register has a list of certified engineers in your area. Prices start at around £45, and go up depending on how many gas appliances you own.
If you rent your home, ask your landlord when the next gas safety check is coming up. It would also be a good time to ask about installing a carbon monoxide detector.
If you’re an OVO Energy member on our Priority Services Register, you might qualify for a free gas safety check. Call us on 0330 303 5063 to see if you’re eligible. Or check out our booklet for more information.