Carbon monoxide poisoning: Who is most at risk?

Protecting vulnerable or low-income households this winter

As winter approaches and the nights draw in, we are all trying to stay warm at home. With increased use of fuel burning appliances such as log burners or gas boilers, we are all at greater risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. With over 4000 people attending A&E departments due to carbon monoxide poisoning in England each year, are some households more at risk than others?

Staying safe in the dead of winter

Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis 1 from Public Health England stated that many deaths relating to CO poisoning occur between November and February due to faulty fossil fuel and wood burning appliances leaking this lethal gas. He urges everyone to have their solid fuel burning appliances checked by a registered engineer before the start of winter and to have a suitable carbon monoxide alarm installed in each room containing an appliance.

Kidde carbon monoxide alarm placed near a gas fire
Kidde carbon monoxide alarm located near a gas fire

Who is most at risk?

Recent studies have shown that lower income households are more at risk of CO poisoning. Research carried out by the National Energy Action charity and the Gas Safety Trust found that 35% of low income and vulnerable households surveyed exceeded the 10ppm threshold for carbon monoxide levels. This threshold indicates levels of CO that are harmful with prolonged exposure, having adverse effects on the body and brain.

Why are low income and vulnerable households more at risk? 

There is shown to be a direct correlation between fuel poverty and carbon monoxide poisoning. Lower income households are often reliant on older boilers to heat their homes. These are often less efficient and carry a greater risk of emitting CO gas if not properly serviced and maintained. Some households in this category did not have a central heating system and were reliant on smaller, often older heaters or even gas stoves or cookers to heat their homes.

Research carried out by Dr Andy Shaw from Liverpool John Moores University found that deprived areas were less likely to own an audible CO alarm than homes in non-deprived areas, further increasing the risk of CO poisoning. As these households are more at risk of the presence of CO gas, having a detector is vital. CO gas is otherwise undetectable by humans without the presence of a CO detector due to it having no colour, taste or smell.

Over 60s were also found to be particularly vulnerable to CO poisoning. This could be attributed to the likelihood of them spending more time at home and feeling the cold, resulting in the need to use an appliance more regularly to stay warm. Elderly people, or those with respiratory problems are also more at risk from the effects of carbon monoxide, becoming ill more quickly. With symptoms being similar to those of flu or food poisoning, a headache, nausea and dizziness may be attributed to those common illnesses rather than to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Headache or dizziness is a symptom of co poisoning
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can easily be mistaken for flu or a common cold or sickness bug

Other groups shown to be disproportionately affected by CO poisoning include pregnant women, young children, anyone with an existing respiratory condition and elderly people.

Common symptoms to look out for

Otherwise known as ‘the silent killer’, carbon monoxide can cause severe symptoms and even death if not detected quickly. Look out for these symptoms in yourself or others:

Symptoms of CO Poisoning

Supporting those most at risk

We can all play our part to ensure that vulnerable people and lower income households are protected against carbon monoxide poisoning. By ensuring that everyone follows these simple guidelines, we can help to protect ourselves and our communities.

  1. Be in the know about CO. Would you be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning? Learn how to spot the dangers, signs and symptoms of CO poisoning and help to educate those around you. Findings by the Gas Safe Register2 in 2019 revealed that only one in five respondents said they would be aware of a carbon monoxide leak in their homes if they felt unwell.
  2. Have your gas or solid fuel appliances serviced regularly. According to the latest UK inspection figures from Gas Safe Register, 5.5 million homes in the UK have unsafe gas appliances. When did you last have your appliance checked?
  3. Install a CO alarm where required. It is recommended that a carbon monoxide alarm be installed in every room in the house containing an appliance that could leak CO gas.  Is your home covered? Check with vulnerable friends, family or neighbours to see if they need help installing a carbon monoxide alarm.

The All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group (APPCOG) is calling for protection for the most vulnerable households in England to be a priority. Their recommendations include making it mandatory for CO alarms to be installed in every property whether it be private rented, social housing or owner-occupied. Scotland is introducing new regulations next year which include a stipulation to fit a carbon monoxide alarm in every home. It is hoped that other countries within the UK will follow suit.

Further information and advice on carbon monoxide poisoning including the signs and symptoms, and what to do in a CO emergency can be found on our information page. You can also download our printable information sheet which can be placed in a prominent place in your home. Or, why not give it to, or talk it through with anyone who you think could be vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning. This resource contains an action plan for what to do if a CO alarm sounds and what symptoms to look out for as well as general awareness.

Download our information sheet and share with relatives or friends

References:

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reduce-the-risk-of-carbon-monoxide-poisoning-over-winter
  2. https://www.gassaferegister.co.uk/news/news-2020/over-80-of-uk-adults-at-risk-of-missing-hangover-like-carbon-monoxide-poisoning-symptoms/

Important facts presented at CO Awareness Launch

Safelincs was invited to the launch of the Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week that was held at the House of Lords on the 19th of November. The week is organised by CO-Aware, a charity that supports the many victims of Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning, their families and friends.

A number of very important facts were highlighted during the presentations.

Impact of Long-term Exposure to Carbon Monoxide

The first of these was the long term effects for people who had suffered long-term exposure to carbon monoxide but had seemingly recovered.  There is a common perception that, if a person has been removed from the source of carbon monoxide, they will suffer no long-term problems. Brain specialist Dr Steve White gave a presentation entitled ‘Neurobehavioural problems following CO exposure’ which detailed how exposure to the gas can have a long term effects, such as deterioration of brain tissue following exposure to carbon monoxide.

He used the case study of 45 year old graduate in Boston, USA who was exposed to carbon monoxide whilst working in the kitchen of a restaurant. After a long time, it emerged that there was an appliance leaking the gas. Her initial symptoms were flu –like, headache, muscle pain, fatigue, not walking straight and bumping into things, speech and hearing problems, irritability and facial pain. Once the CO leak was removed her most obvious symptoms improved rapidly.  The lady was subsequently monitored over many months to determine any long-term impact form the poisoning.

Despite having a very high IQ, the lady, over the following months, experienced problems reading and speaking (missing words). There were incidences of memory loss, short attention span and lack of perseverance when set tasks. She also suffered bouts of depression not experienced before.

These problems were believed to be due to the damage caused by carbon monoxide to the basal ganglia of the brain.

The neurobehavioural effects of exposure will vary between individuals and will depend on length and degree of exposure.  One in three people who have been exposed to CO and seemingly recovered could experience illness symptoms about six weeks later.

Barbeques and open fires

There has been quite a lot of publicity this year around tragedies where campers have died from carbon monoxide poisoning after taking a barbeque into a tent for warmth. Mark Pratten from Cornwall Fire and Rescue is an evangelist for raising awareness of CO poisoning and has been taking the message across the county’s camp sites and caravan sites. Unfortunately, whilst people know not to take the barbeques into the tent they assume that this is due to the fire risk and that dying embers on the other hand are quite safe. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mark’s short talk at the launch provided previously unrecognised information. Tests carried out in Cornwall found that when a barbeque was no longer hot enough for cooking, and was in fact only very slightly warm to the touch, it was emitting MORE carbon monoxide than when it was hot, and at extremely dangerous levels.  If a tray with a warm, disposable barbeque was taken into a closed tent, the CO levels rose up to 900ppm, a level which is potentially deadly.

The same applies to embers from an open fire within a house. Their CO creation potential must not be underestimated and chimneys must not be blocked or air vents closed after a fire until all embers have completely died down. Also, buckets with hot ash must be taken out of the house immediately.

Making GPs aware

Dr Ombarish Banerjee talked about his ‘conversion’ to the awareness of the dangers of CO poisoning. Because symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning mimic so many common health problems, most victims don’t even know they are actually being poisoned. And the same goes for doctors. It is certain that many cases go undiagnosed and are put down to a virus or something similar.

GPs perceive the problem to be rare and more likely to turn up in Accident and Emergency centres. While many doctors have CO readers these are mainly used to show people, who are giving up smoking, how their CO levels have dropped. However, these devices could also be used to assess potential CO victims; however, one must keep in mind that their readings will have dropped significantly since leaving their homes, so misreadings are possible.

Dr Banerjee has been involved in producing a video that is being sent out to GPs and other areas in the NHS aimed at raising awareness.

Other presentations at the launch included stories from victims and relatives. CO- Awareness is fighting to obtain better facilities for victims. Until the effects are more widely recognised this will be an uphill task.

Final note of caution

Positive news is that the government is looking at ways to link compulsory installation of CO alarms to the ‘Green Deal’. However, it is estimated that five million homes have poorly maintained, damaged or incorrectly installed fuel burning devices that could emit carbon monoxide. And as we live now in better insulated homes, the problem could become worse, as any carbon monoxide leakage will not be vented quickly.

The CO problem will be around for a long time yet.

Useful link: www.carbon-monoxide-survivor.com

CO Awareness Week 2012 19th – 25th November

2012 has seen many deaths being reported in the media due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Some of the victims were campers, who were unaware of the dangers of taking a smouldering BBQ into their tents to keep warm, others were through faulty solid fuel appliances. All these tragic incidents are a sombre reminder that we should all be working hard to increase the awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning.

CO awareness week, November 19th to 25th, is about spreading information in the hope that lives can be saved. We all can take steps during this week to reduce the risk of CO poisoning. Ensure that, if you have not already done so, any solid fuel appliance are serviced or cleaned. This includes wood burning stoves, as well as open fires. Many people believe that carbon monoxide is restricted to gas appliances, but any appliance that burns gas, wood, oil or coal could give off carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide does not have any smell, taste or colour and as such is not detectable without a carbon monoxide alarm. The symptoms, which are very similar to flu, can go undiagnosed. Prolonged exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can have devastating long term effects on your health. If the levels of CO are higher the result can lead to unconsciousness in a very short period of time. This can result in death if the person is not discovered in time.

Be pro-active, if you do not own a carbon monoxide alarm, buy one during this awareness week. They cost as little as £12.99 ex VAT and are either battery operated or mains powered. You should have one alarm in each room where a solid fuel appliance is situated. If you have a tight budget, why not ask for one as a present for Christmas or buy someone an alarm as their present, they will probably appreciate it more than another pair of socks!

If you feel that you do not know enough about carbon monoxide poisoning and would like to know more, Carbon Monoxide Information is a website dedicated to providing people with  information and news about CO poisoning. Take a few minutes to have a look for yourself.

Lastly, we would like to ask you to help us spread the word about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. If we all talk to one friend or family member and ask them if they are aware about the effects of carbon monoxide, we could all be saving a life. Lets stamp out this silent killer together.

 

Gas Safety Week 10th – 16th September 2012

Gas Safety Week, co-ordinated by the Gas Safe Register, is a week-long event during which companies and organisations working within the industry promote gas safety.

Carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, including natural gas, causes thousands of people every year to fall ill. It can be produced by faulty boilers, gas fires and cookers and, in the worst case, cause death by carbon monoxide poisoning.

As summer begins to fade and autumn takes its place, we start to switch on the central heating or light our fires. It is a good time of year to ensure that appliances are serviced and that chimneys and flues are swept. Carbon monoxide can be produced by an open coal or wood fire if the chimney is not drawing the smoke out of the room efficiently.

As symptoms for carbon monoxide poisoning are very similar to those of flu, it is possible for the presence of this gas to go undetected. If you have headaches and/or feelings of nausea and drowsiness, it may be due to the inhalation of carbon monoxide fumes. One of the simplest ways to protect yourself and your family is to install a carbon monoxide alarm in each room where there is a fossil fuel burning appliance. Carbon monoxide alarms sell for as little as £12.99 ex VAT . They will be triggered by the presence of carbon monoxide above 50ppm (parts per million) in the atmosphere.

On hearing your carbon monoxide alarm sound, you should open all windows and turn off the appliances that use fossil fuel. If the appliance is a gas burning device, contact the gas board and inform them of the situation. They will be able to confirm if there is carbon monoxide present and advise you on what to do next. If you were using an open fire at the point of alarm, ensure that you have swept the chimney  before relighting it; if the alarm goes off again, you may need to contact your local builder to ensure that there are no problems with the integrity of your chimney.

Visit Carbonmonoxideinfo.co.uk for useful information on this gas, including real-life accounts of people’s experiences of it. To help prevent tragic deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning, please spread the message this week to family and friends; and, if you have elderly neighbours, check that they are looking after their appliances and suggest that they install carbon monoxide alarms, too.