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/

Staying safe in later life

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As more of us are living alone as we get older, we need to ensure that, as we retain our independence, we also remain safe.
The 2011 census found that 9.2 million (16 per cent) of people, normally residing in England and Wales, were aged 65 and over, an increase of almost one million from the previous census in 2001. Of those, around 31 per cent were living alone.

As we grow older we want to maintain our independence for as long as possible, but it has to be taken into account that some of us will not be as alert as were when we were younger. The early onset of dementia is not always detected and can manifest itself in carelessness around the home. In addition, older people are often released from hospital earlier than they would have in the past and not always with sufficient carers to look after their safety and well-being.

Protection from fire

Accidental fires are a major concern for those living alone and, on average, two people over 65 a week in Great Britain are dying in house fires. Concerned relatives will want to take precautions to ensure that every step is taken to safeguard their loved ones.

The most obvious action is to ensure that adequate smoke alarms are installed in a property – a minimum of one on every floor. There is a range of mains and battery powered devices available; of particular interest are radio-interlinked smoke alarms, which are connected through radio frequency signals to ensure the fire alarm is raised throughout the residence. This is particularly important if high risk rooms, such as kitchens, are a distance away from bedrooms.

Hearing disabilities mean that up to one in seven people may not be woken up by a conventional smoke alarm system. Smoke alarms for the deaf and hard of hearing use high-intensity strobe lights and vibration pads, which are placed under the pillow at night.

Smoke alarms should be tested regularly, but for some of us this may be difficult if it involves being perched precariously on a chair! A friend or relative performing this task is the most sensible course of action. However, if an Ei radio-interlinked or hard-wired smoke alarm system is installed this can be tested remotely using a test switch that is either wireless or wired into the mains powered smoke alarm system in a convenient location. Turning on the “Test” switch will activate all interconnected smoke and heat alarms – equivalent to pressing the test button on an alarm.

Fire prevention in the kitchen

The kitchen is potentially the most calamitous area in the house with cooking appliances (mainly cookers and ovens) being the main source of ignition for more than half of all accidental dwelling fires, according to the most recent set of fire statistics for Great Britain.
Whilst a helpful fire prevention tool for all of us, stove alarms are particularly useful for those of us who may become distracted whilst cooking. A relatively recent innovation, these devices react and sound a warning when a cooker becomes too hot.

Specially designed for installation above a cooker, the Innohome Stove Alarm SA101 is simple to install. It attaches to the cooker hood using integrated magnets, however, it can also be fitted to the wall using screws. As they are battery operated there is no need for cables or an external power source. A loud 90dB alarm is activated if the cooker becomes too hot or when an empty hotplate is left on, warning of a hazardous situation before toxic gases are produced or a fire starts. The device includes a heat sensor that detects the temperature and the rate of increase in temperature. It intelligently learns from and adjusts its sensitivity to the users’ cooking pattern. The alarm does not react to fumes from cooking fat or steam. The SA101 is compatible with gas, electrical and dual-fuel cookers.

A even more sophisticated device, but compatible only with electric cookers, is the Innohome Stove Guard SGK 500. This is also attached to the cooker hood or wall. The intelligent heat sensor assesses the temperature of the cooker top and its rate of rise and identifies when a hazardous situation occurs. On detection of a hazard, the heat sensor wirelessly communicates with a control unit, which in turn cuts off the electricity supply to the cooker. The control unit also enables connection to social alarm systems such as Telecare.

Carbon Monoxide

Special attention needs to be paid to regularly servicing heating appliances and ensuring chimneys are swept. Carbon Monoxide (CO) is produced if there is not enough oxygen during the combustion process. It is commonly produced in appliances fuelled by LPG, natural gas, oil, petrol, wood or coal that have been badly fitted, are damaged, badly repaired or poorly maintained. CO is odourless, colourless and tasteless – the most dangerous common airborne poisoning in the world. Around 50 people a year die from CO poisoning in the UK, although some experts believe that this figure may be far higher because the symptoms are not easy to detect, with deaths often being attributed to old age.

All homes should be protected by carbon monoxide alarms. Battery models can be bought for less that fifteen pounds and some models have longlife, sealed-in ten year batteries that provide long-term peace of mind. Mains powered models can be wired into the electric circuit or plugged into a wall socket.

LPG and Natural Gas

Natural gas and LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) are used for heating, cooking or heating water. As we are getting older, we are becoming more likely to forget to switch off a gas appliance or to light it in the first place. If, however, a gas cooker is left on without being lit, an explosion could eventually occur. Devices for detecting such escaping LPG or natural gas in domestic properties are available and warn us of such an occurrence. The AMS S/200P gas alarm is simply plugged into a socket and delivers a visual (LED) and audible warning upon detection of flammable gases. It also features relay outputs for interconnection to external devices.

Safety checks

If you are caring for an elderly friend or relative it is advisable to do a quick safety check around the property. Are the escape routes uncluttered and easy to navigate? Are plug sockets overloaded? Some of us have a tendency to hold on to treasured electrical items such as old radios. These may well be far more sturdy and reliable than those on the market today, but how safe is the wiring?

How safe is the furniture? Items that have been bought many years ago will probably not meet the latest fire ratings. Impregnation sprays are available to protect soft furnishing, bedding and curtains as well as decorations against catching fire (useful on Christmas trees and decorations as well as soft furnishings). They come in three versions: ‘standard’ for treatment of decorations, real Christmas trees, paper etc., ‘washable’ (can be machine washed) for treatment of bedding, curtains etc. and ‘special’ for treatment of artificial flowers, plastic decorations etc.

Finally, is it a good idea to install a fire extinguisher, in case all the precautions fail? Fire services have traditionally preached that people should get out of the house straight away if a fire breaks out. However, a survey carried out by the FIA found that over a twelve month period over 1,600 injuries were prevented and 24 lives saved by the use of fire extinguishers. The general interpretation of the statistics was that an extinguisher (irrespective of size) will put out a small fire. Once it becomes too big it becomes difficult to tackle with any number of extinguishers and the building should be evacuated.

If a fire extinguisher is to be installed, the latest water mist appliance is the most versatile for the home. It works by dispersing microscopic water mist particles to suppress fires and extinguish burning materials very rapidly. It can be used on just about every type of domestic fire and can be safely operated on live electrical appliances, as it only contains de-ionised water which is unable to carry electrical current. There are no chemicals involved, so if it is discharged in a cooking area there is no danger of contaminated food.

If you have any specialist questions, please contact Safelincs on 0800 612 6537 and our friendly staff will be happy to help.