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Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odourless gas that, in England and Wales alone, causes the accidental deaths of approximately 50 people each year. Additionally, each year about 200 people are seriously injured by CO and around another 200 people are treated but not admitted to hospital as a result of accidental CO poisoning. It is widely accepted that CO is under-diagnosed and there could well be much larger numbers of people suffering the ill effects of exposure.

Older people, children, pregnant women and their babies and those with breathing problems or cardiovascular disease are at increased risk. Exposure to high concentrations of carbon monoxide leads to collapse and death within minutes and even lower levels of poisoning can result in lasting neurological damage.

What are the symptoms?

Recognising CO poisoning is not easy, as it may simulate many other conditions. The most common symptoms are:

Indications of domestic carbon monoxide poisoning:

What are the warning signs?

Look out for the following warning signs in the home:

Where does CO come from?

CO results from the incomplete combustion of all carbon-containing fuels: gas (domestic or bottled), coal, coke, oil, biofuel and wood. Any disruption of the burning process or shortage of oxygen can increase CO production and its accumulation to dangerous levels.

More than two thirds of reported cases of carbon monoxide poisoning are connected to central heating appliances. Out of these, half are classed as "older" central heating boilers.

But it's not just malfunctioning or poorly flued gas boilers that cause CO: stoves, fires, water heaters, paraffin heaters, room heaters, generators and even BBQs (if used in a poorly ventilated area) are all potential sources.

Caravans, boats and mobile homes are also at risk as they often use portable appliances which use the above listed fuels.

Partially blocked flues and chimneys and insufficient ventilation are also common causes of poisoning. Be aware too that CO can seep into properties via shared flues and chimneys and people can be poisoned by carbon monoxide produced by an appliance in a neighbouring property.

What can I do to protect my family from CO?

Appliance maintenance and safety inspections

Research indicates that 23% of homes have one or more defective gas appliances and 8% of homes – almost 1 in 10 – are judged to be at risk of dangerous levels of CO. Many homeowners rely on old or inefficient boilers that may never have been serviced. The first line of defence therefore is to ensure that gas appliances (boiler, cooker or fire) and any connected flues or extraction systems in your home are regularly maintained to keep them operating in safe working order and subject to annual safety checks by a qualified Gas Safe Registered engineer.

CO alarms

CO alarmA second but highly important line of defence is to fit one or more CO alarms. You cannot see or smell carbon monoxide and so fitting a European Standard certified audible carbon monoxide alarm is a low cost but potentially life saving device. It is however essential that your alarm is marked with the EN50291 safety standard and with the CE mark. CO alarms are now widely available to buy online or through electrical stores. Your local Gas Safe Registered heating engineer will also fit one for you.

More information

For more information about CO poisoning and related issues, visit these websites (click on them to link through):

Copyright B&ES 2012