Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a very dangerous gas for human beings. It is extremely toxic yet it is invisible and odourless making it even more dangerous as it can only be detected by measuring devices. CO is formed as a result of incomplete combustion of carbon fuel e.g. gas/coal. It may be formed due to a lack of air, too much excess air or flames cooling too quickly. It can get into rooms via defect, badly maintained, falsely adjusted heating systems. Just 0.16% (1600ppm) can lead to death within 2 hours and only 1.28% (12800pp,) can cause death within 1-3 minutes. Thus it is highly important that concentrations are measured often and thoroughly. The recommended exposure limit from the HSE is just 0.005% (50ppm).

The symptoms of mild carbon monoxide poisoning may be non-specific and similar to those of viral cold and flu infections or food poisoning: headache, nausea, abdominal pain, dizziness, sore throat and dry cough. But, unlike flu infection, carbon monoxide poisoning doesn\’t cause a high temperature. In children, the symptoms are similar to those of a stomach upset, with nausea and vomiting. More severe poisoning can result in a fast and irregular heart rate, hyperventilation, confusion, drowsiness and difficulty breathing. Seizures and loss of consciousness may also occur. Some symptoms can occur a few days or even months after exposure to carbon monoxide. These may include confusion, loss of memory and problems with coordination.

If you or your family experience any of the above symptoms and you believe CO may be involved, you must seek urgent medical advice from either your GP or an accident and emergency department. You should ask for a blood or breath test to confirm the presence of CO. Be aware, CO quickly leaves the blood and tests may be inaccurate if taken more than four hours after exposure has ceased.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can be confirmed by finding high levels in the blood. Treatment includes making sure the patient is away from any source of the gas, providing basic life support as appropriate and giving oxygen before transferring the patient to hospital. People who suffer mild poisoning invariably make a full recovery. Between ten and 50 per cent of those with severe poisoning may suffer long-term problems.

So apart from regular servicing, what else can be done to help prevent CO poisoning? The simplest answer is to fit a CO alarm. Early CO detectors are very basic white or beige elements that fade to a brownish blackish colour if CO is present. These are still widely available but now there are more advanced audible detectors available. The detector will set off an alarm if the levels of carbon monoxide get too high. Detectors should be placed near the floor or the ceiling as CO has a density very close to that of air. Alarms should be installed according to the instructions & they should be checked regularly. 

CO detectors work differently from smoke detectors in that they don’t simply have an alarm level where they will go off but they work on a concentration-time function. If the CO detector does go off it is important that action is taken immediately such as opening all doors & windows, turning off gas fires & even evacuating the premises. Symptoms of CO poisoning may include confusion, nausea, headaches, dizziness and vomiting etc. If you suspect you are suffering from CO poisoning you must seek medical advice immediately as exposure to high levels of CO can be fatal.