It's very important to understand how dangerous Carbon Monoxide (CO) gas can be to humans when it occurs in concentrations above 35 'parts per notation' (PPM).
It does occur naturally in the atmosphere in low levels that is not of danger to humans, however, as it is formed when there is not enough oxygen to produce Carbon Dioxide (CO2), it can be lethal in enclosed spaces.
Carbon Monoxide has been gruesomely nicknamed 'The Silent Killer' because of it's inability to be smelt, seen, heard or tasted, which makes it all the more dangerous.
Every year, CO will cause 4000 people to visit the hospital with CO poisoning, with 200 of these needing an overnight stay and 50 not surviving. This also doesn't take into account the CO deaths that occur without the victims making it to hospital.
In terms of our homes, lethal levels of Carbon Monoxide can be produced when carbon-based fuels are not completely burned. This usually occurs when fuel-burning appliances are faulty or malfunctioning.
Appliances such as furnaces, ranges, gas boilers, water heaters, gas or kerosene room heaters and fireplaces are the main examples that can kill if functioning incorrectly. Any of these that are malfunctioning can cause your home to fill up with carbon monoxide gas in the same way as starting a car in a closed garaged or lighting a BBQ in a tent when camping. All are serious and all can kill very quickly.
Physical symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, becoming out of breath, feeling lethargic, behaving erratically and feeling better as soon as you leave the house.
Pets can also give you an indication that there is too much Carbon Monoxide in your home. Cats will often refuse to come in and dogs may have sore mouths or become irritable. The old classic tale of miners taking a canary down the coal mine is for this very reason. High levels of Carbon Monoxide would kill the canary before the miners and act as an indicator that they need to get out.
While you can't see the gas itself, visual symptoms include yellowy-brownish stains around fuel burning appliances, orange or yellow pilot lights (they should be blue - see your boiler for an example), pilot lights that won't stay or and an increase in condensation on the inside of windows.
If you do suspect that an appliance is faulty and producing Carbon Monoxide then switch it off, open all the windows for ventilation and call the Gas Emergency Hotline on 0800 111 999 for further advice. You should also visit your GP or local hospital and tell them you suspect you've been exposed to too much CO. They can do a blood and/or breath test to confirm, though you should get this done immediately as Carbon Monoxide leaves the body quickly.
To avoid your fuel-burning appliances becoming faulty, you should get them checked at least once per year. Gas Safe Registered plumbers and engineers can be called into check your appliances and thoroughly test them. This is particularly recommended for gas boilers, as not only can it identify any leaks, it will also help prevent breakdowns and the possibility of being without heating during the winter months.
You should also install a Carbon Monoxide Detector and test it regular and change the batteries if necessary. It's pointless to go to the trouble of installing an alarm if you allow the batteries to go flat, rendering it useless!
Article by Benjamin Clarke
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