Carbon monoxide

Protect yourself and your family from Carbon Monoxide

Imagine an invisible, odourless gas invading homes, workplaces and vehicles. There’s no warning. No sirens. There are very few clues that the attack is even under way. Survivors can be left with lifelong effects.

This is not the latest TV drama like Bodyguard or Spooks, or the new James Bond film. It’s a very real threat. Daniel Craig or Richard Madden can’t protect us – but there is a lot we can do to protect ourselves.

We’re not talking about a master villain’s nerve agent manufactured in a hidden laboratory. Carbon monoxide is found in the air all around us – yet surprisingly few people are aware of the dangers of this gas.

Even a small amount of carbon monoxide (CO) exposure can damage our brains. Cases making the headlines usually feature victims of a sudden, severe exposure – perhaps overcome while watching late-night TV in front of a faulty gas fire. These situations can often be fatal. But for those who survive, there can be long-term consequences, many of which are difficult for even medical professionals to diagnose.

How does carbon monoxide (CO) affect us?

When inhaled, CO binds to our red blood cells, which usually carry oxygen around our bodies. CO molecules take the place of oxygen in the bloodstream, depriving vital organs and tissues of oxygen. CO molecules are also toxic to our organs, including the brain.

People rescued from high levels of exposure are given oxygen to ‘push’ CO from the bloodstream. Although some people make a full recovery, it can also result in life-changing brain injury.

People who apparently recover immediately may develop Delayed Neurological Syndrome (DNS), between 2-40 days later. Symptoms include memory loss, Parkinson’s-like movements, trouble walking, urinary incontinence, difficulties with communications, depressed mood, dementia-type symptoms and, in extreme cases, psychosis.

But many people do not realise that longer-term, lower level exposure to CO can also lead to acquired brain injury and other health issues. An unserviced boiler in your home or a leaky exhaust on your car could be placing you and your family at risk.

Julie Connolly is a Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, researching the experiences of people affected in this way. She said: “People’s stories can be heart-breaking. They have developed brain injuries which will be with them for the rest of their lives. But also they have, in some cases, lived with symptoms for some years, been disbelieved or treated for mental health issues, when the cause of their symptoms was carbon monoxide exposure.”

Julie explained: “One woman had to change her career entirely. She could no longer cope with the demands of running her own business. Another young woman struggles with hyperacuity, meaning that she has become extremely sensitive to all loud noises, making it hard to cope on nights out with friends or even when on a street with lots of traffic.

“Some people don’t have the same emotional behaviours, and memories are altered. One man I spoke to completely forgot that his wife of 30 years had never liked drinking tea, which she found incredibly upsetting. It sounds like such a small thing but it really emphasised how much they had both been affected.”

Where does carbon monoxide come from?

When fuels such as gas, oil, coal and wood do not burn fully, carbon monoxide is produced. CO is an invisible, odourless, tasteless poisonous gas.

The main risks inside homes are from appliances which use these types of fuel, such as:

  • Boilers and central heating systems
  • Gas fires
  • Water heaters
  • Cookers, hobs, ovens and Aga-type appliances
  • Open fires and woodburners

In some cases, people have been affected by CO entering their home from a neighbouring property, perhaps through an open window or vent. CO has also been known to seep through the walls from a neighbouring property, or into flats above takeaway premises, sometimes with deadly consequences.

It is also found in fumes from barbecues, vehicle engine and cigarette smoke. 

Staying safe

Be aware of the main symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure.

People don’t have to have all these symptoms, and this is not an exhaustive list. 

  • Tension-type headache - the most common symptom of mild poisoning
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling and being sick
  • Tiredness
  • Confusion, difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Stomach pain
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • Flu-like symptoms but no increased temperature
  • Emotional changes, such as becoming easily irritated, depressed, making impulsive/irrational decisions

Be aware of the actions to take if you think you are being affected

Carbon monoxide alarm

  • Turn off the source of the source of possible CO
  • Open windows/doors
  • Go outside for fresh air
  • Call the fire service
  • Seek medical assistance - explain you think you may have been affected by CO
  • Don't wait before having a blood test, as CO leaves the blood once you are away from the source of the gas
  • Reduce risk
  • Install an audible CO alarm in every room
  • Test alarms every month
  • Have all appliances services by a qualified professional annually
  • Have chimneys swept every year

In you rent your home, your landlord has responsibility to keep you safe. If you are worried about raising issues with your landlord, your local Citizens Advice, council housing team or housing charity Shelter will be able to help you. 

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