Carbon monoxide in the home

carbon monoxide alarm in your homeIf your home has even one fuel-burning appliance or heater, or an attached garage or fireplace, you should have a carbon monoxide detector installed on every level of the home as well as in sleeping areas.

Carbon monoxide detectors have a limited lifespan, usually of just five to seven years. Make sure yours is compliant with British Standard EN 50291 and carries a British or European approval mark, such as a Kitemark. Detectors should be installed, checked and serviced in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas, known as the ‘silent killer’ as it is colourless, odorless and tasteless. It kills 60 people every year in England and Wales, and can only be detected with a carbon monoxide detector.

While exposure to the gas is dangerous to all people and pets, babies and children, pregnant women and those with health problems are likely to be affected more quickly. The smaller a person or pet, the faster they will be affected.

What are the symptoms?

Carbon monoxide prevents the blood from delivering oxygen to cells, tissues and organs and is dangerous even at low levels.

Symptoms of low-level exposure to CO can be confused with other illnesses, such as food poisoning and flu. Symptoms can include drowsiness, confusion, dizziness, headache, sickness, difficulty breathing and stomach pain. 

Exposure at higher levels or for a prolonged period can cause serious symptoms, including death, in as little as a few minutes.

Risk is increased at night time, when you are asleep, as you will be unaware of the symptoms.

There are some signs to be aware of that might indicate the presence of CO in your home, including:

  • Flames with a yellow or orange appearance, rather than blue;
  • Soot or yellow-brown stains on appliances;
  • Pilot lights frequently blowing out;
  • Increased condensation inside windows.
How is Carbon Monoxide produced?

Carbon monoxide is produced by combustion appliances that burn fuels so electric heaters, electric water heaters and other electrical appliances do not produce it in the home.

Carbon monoxide results when fuels such as gas, oil, coal or wood don’t fully burn. It is also produced by running car engines, cigarette smoke and burning charcoal.

In the home, household appliances such as boilers, gas fires, water heaters, cookers and open fires are all sources of CO. Problems and high levels of carbon monoxide can be caused by:

  • Poorly installed, badly maintained or faulty household appliances;
  • Using appliances in enclosed spaces;
  • Running engines, including vehicles and petrol-run generators, in a garage;
  • Using a barbecue indoors or in a garage;
  • Blocked flues or chimneys;
  • Faulty or leaking car exhausts or a blockage caused by snow, as an example.

Certain paint removers and cleaning fluids, specifically those that contain methylene chloride, can even cause carbon monoxide to be produced by the human (or animal) body in a chemical reaction.

What do I do when a Carbon Monoxide detector alarms?

Never assume that the carbon monoxide detector has been triggered because the batteries are low. If your alarm beeps four or five times it is highly possible that it has detected carbon monoxide and you should act immediately.

Get everyone out of the building and attempt to clear the house of carbon monoxide by opening the windows and doors. Do not switch on the lights, smoke or light a candle.

If you can, once the air has had time to clear turn off all appliances that burn fuel at the meter control valve and do not use them again until they have been professionally serviced.

Call the emergency advice line – even if you don’t feel unwell – and remain out of the building:

Gas appliances – call the Gas Emergency Freephone Number on 0800 111 999
Oil burning appliances – call Oftec on 0845 658 5080
Solid fuel appliances – call HETAS on 0845 634 5626

If you have symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, contact your doctor immediately or call 999 for an ambulance.

Finally, arrange for your fuel burning appliances to be serviced by a professional before moving back home. In rented accommodation, this is the responsibility of the landlord, who must provide you with a copy of the completed gas safety check certificate.

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