Carbon monoxide - silent but definitely deadly

Most of us have either got a smoke detector in our homes or at least feel guilty about the fact that we haven't. But a shocking two thirds of UK households don't have a carbon monoxide detector.

Most of us have either got a smoke detector in our homes or at least feel guilty about the fact that we haven't. But a shocking two thirds of UK households don't have a carbon monoxide detector.

The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is lower than it was in the 'bad old days' when gas was mostly produced from coal and thousands died in the annual London smogs produced by wood and coal-burning fires in the inner cities. Gas used to be produced from coal, with large amounts of carbon monoxide given off as a by-product. These days, most of our gas comes from North Sea gas. Even so, carbon monoxide is known to kill about 50 people in the UK every year, cause serious injury to 200 more and cause symptoms in about 4,000 Britons a year. The figures may be much higher, because carbon monoxide is colourless and doesn't smell, so may not be suspected when people become ill. These days, blocked gas flues or vents, poorly serviced gas fires or ovens, and any solid fuel stove are among the culprits in carbon monoxide poisoning. Car exhausts give off carbon monoxide if the engine is left running in a confined space such as a garage. Almost every year brings headlines about unwary campers poisoned by leaving a paraffin camping stove or disposable barbecue burning in an unventilated tent on a chilly night. Cigarette smoke also contains carbon monoxide - as if there weren't enough other reasons for quitting!

Carbon monoxide competes with oxygen to be carried round the body in our red blood cells. The trouble is, it's hundreds of times more efficient than oxygen at attaching to the cells, so even small amounts can deprive our bodies of vital oxygen. In severe cases, it can cause irreversible brain damage by starving the brain of oxygen.

Milder symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea, dizziness, feeling weak, abdominal pain and difficulty in concentrating. These are all too often mistaken for flu or tummy bugs, with occasionally fatal consequences. More severe cases can cause palpitations, breathlessness, personality change, confusion, convulsions and loss of consciousness. The classic 'cherry red lips' so beloved of detective novels are rarely seen in real life.

Equally scarily, carbon monoxide poisoning can often suddenly cause serious symptoms weeks after you've apparently recovered from an acute poisoning episode. Confusion, personality change and symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease can all occur.

This week sees the 8th National Carbon Monoxide awareness week, aimed at helping us protect ourselves from this totally preventable condition. Servicing your boiler or gas fire regularly is a given; and carbon monoxide detectors with alarms are proven to work. They should comply with European Standard EN 50291 and show a British Standards Kitemark or Loss Prevention Certification Board logo. They only cost a few pounds and they could save a life.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.