The Underreported Dangers of Carbon Monoxide

As a regular listener to Classic FM my ears were on full alert when I recently heard a The Underreported Dangers of Carbon Monoxide - Jim Lambethradio advertisement warning the public of the risks of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in the home.

As a Trustee/Director of Co-Gas Safety I was particularly encouraged by the message conveyed across the air waves.

For 22 years, the charity CO-Gas Safety have warned of the dangers from exposure to Carbon Monoxide in homes where householders rely on fossil fuels for their heating and cooking.  Moreover, during that period CO-Gas Safety Founder and President Stephanie Trotter OBE LLB, has constantly lobbied government and industry for them to fully recognise the risk in the hope of bringing about some constructive changes to attitudes and subsequent policy.

Sadly, for reasons which escape me, it remains an uphill battle.  Politicians seen unwilling to acknowledge the risk to their own constituents whilst Energy Industry leaders appear to be in denial.

I suspect as CO poisoning affects a relatively small number of people, compared with say, road deaths or cancer, there are insufficient ‘brownie points’ for any MP to bother taking up the cause.  Mind you, if one of their party members or family died as a consequence of CO poisoning I think attitudes would sharpen.

Further, I suspect Energy Companies are unwilling to publicise that burning gas poses any threat to customers.  After all, this represents a negative message for their marketing department staff.

As a consequence, for as long as I have been employed in the domestic heating sector, CO Poisoning has been ignored or at best side-lined by the majority as an issue which is of little importance.

Significantly, many GP’s struggle to diagnose CO poisoning as a consequence of which affected patients continue to suffer The Underreported Dangers of Carbon Monoxide 1in ignorance. The symptoms of low level exposure are similar to ‘flu or any of the various viruses that circulate from time to time, so often the advice from the medical profession is to go home and keep warm – perhaps in front of the fire – is hardly a recipe for a healthy recovery.

Thankfully, the UK statistics recorded by CO-Gas Safety indicate a fall in the number of fatalities over their 22 year period.  However, the number of recorded ‘near misses’ total 5233 for that same time period (of which 2188 required hospital treatment), which is alarming.  In addition RIDDOR reported incidents for the past 6 years show  slightly higher numbers per annum.  The disparity comes about because there is no statutory requirement to register/record CO related incidents, so we suspect the total numbers are likely to be higher than those collated.  Perversely, hospital A&E staff are not required to check for levels of carboxyhaemoglobin in the patient’s bloodstream so many must slip through the net.

For those not conversant with the danger of carbon monoxide I will attempt to provide a simple clarification.

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless, tasteless non-irritant gas that is slightly less dense than air.  It is produced by the incomplete combustion of carbonaceous fuels (fossil fuels) such as gas, coal, wood, heating oil and LPG, plus your barbeque.

As it is virtually impossible for any domestic heating fuels to burn 100% efficient, due to the unequal distribution of oxygen, there will always be varying degrees of carbon monoxide present in exhaust gasses.  If these gasses are not efficiently discharged to atmosphere and enter the living space occupants are at risk of ingesting CO.

Carbon monoxide is absorbed via the lungs into the bloodstream where it replaces oxygen by chemically attaching itself to haemoglobin to form carboxyhaemoglobin. This action reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can affect people’s mental ability before they are aware there is a problem.  Any exertion will increase the body’s need for oxygen which serves to make the problem worse leading to collapse and potential death.  Those particularly at risk are the young, elderly and the infirm.  In short, CO poisoning deprives the body of oxygen which can result in long term damage to vital organs, especially the brain.

It is essential for heating appliance installers and service engineers to ensure all flue gasses exit the property to atmosphere in a safe and efficient manner and that no gasses are allowed to leak into the home. This demands that flue connections meet manufacturer’s requirements and compliant with Building Regulations and British/European Standards.  Remember, contractors have a legally binding duty of care to ensure a completed installation or service leaves the fire safe and fit for purpose.

The most common causes of fume escape are blocked and leaking flues.  It is imperative therefore to ensure flue outlets and chimneys are cleaned at least once a year, or more often if wood burning appliances are in use.  In addition, some appliance types may need more regular attention to complex flue-way design.

Deterioration of the chimney over time is inevitable therefore it is imperative to test its integrity before an appliance installation commences.  Any defects must be satisfactory rectified or decisions taken to use some alternative system.

The Underreported Dangers of Carbon Monoxide 2We also know of several incidents involving flue gasses finding their way through open bedroom windows from gas terminals inappropriately located nearby. Whilst complaints of smoke ingress via first floor bedroom windows from adjacent chimneys fitted to single storey extensions is becoming more common.

Government advice stresses the need to make homes more energy efficient and encourage consumers to eliminate unwanted draughts through doors and windows.  As a consequence, many homes, especially those newly constructed, can be virtually air-tight to the detriment of open flued appliances.  They can be seriously affected by a lack of ventilation to the room which reduces flue draught and results in the potential risk of smoke/fume spillage back into the room, particularly when opening a stove door to refuel. Installers should always measure the draught levels available to ensure the flue performance meets manufacturer’s recommendations

Lastly, we have come across incidents where barbecues have been used in enclosed spaces – even inside a tent in the rain, resulting in a tragic outcome.

My message is simple. Never ignore a customer who complaints about fume emission. Tell them to evacuate the room until a full investigation is carried out.  Although CO is odourless, where solid fuel is involved CO will invariably be accompanied by the smell of the smoke.  Sadly, flue gasses from gas appliances do not have similar characteristics therefore it can be more difficult to identify danger signals, and there are many more gas fired appliances out there.

Whilst all new solid fuel appliance installations together with rented properties are required to be fitted with carbon monoxide alarms there is no similar statutory requirement for gas appliances.  The radio advertisement encourages listeners to fit a CO alarm, which I recommend to all.  The cost is relatively low and will add little to the final cost of a job, yet may save a life. 

Jim Lambeth

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