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 poisoning 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.
Since we are most vulnerable to the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning while we sleep, it is important to place alarms near your family’s bedrooms. If you only have one CO alarm, place it as close to everyone’s sleeping area as possible.
Ideally, you should have carbon monoxide detectors placed throughout your home, as you do smoke alarms. You should place a CO detector in each major area of your home: in the kitchen, in your living/dining room, in your bedrooms, and the office. If you have children or elderly family members living with you, provide extra protection near their rooms. If you live in a multi-story home, be sure to place at least one carbon monoxide detector on each level.
If you have a gas clothes dryer, put an alarm in the laundry room. Place one in the garage, if you park your cars there. Wherever you have a solid fuel-fired appliance – anything that could produce carbon monoxide – you should also have a CO alarm.
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:
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
If anyone in your house has any of the symptoms outlined above, they should 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 gas installer.
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.
Prevention is always better than cure: by having your gas boiler and gas appliances correctly installed in good ventilated areas, properly repaired and getting a gas boiler service annually by Registered Gas Installers (RGI) the risks of being exposed to CO poisoning are reduced.