Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – What Are The Symptoms

You can’t see it, taste it or smell it but it can kill quickly and with no warning. Unsafe gas appliances produce a highly poisonous gas called carbon monoxide (CO). It can cause death as well as serious long term health problems such as brain damage.

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Click here to view the carbon monoxide video

Remember the six main symptoms to look out for:

  1. headaches
  2. dizziness 
  3. nausea 
  4. breathlessness 
  5. collapse 
  6. loss of consciousness 

Being aware of the symptoms could save your life.

Carbon monoxide symptoms are similar to flu, food poisoning, viral infections and simply tiredness. That’s why it’s quite common for people to mistake this very dangerous poisoning for something else.

Other signs that could point to carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Your symptoms only occur when you are at home
  • Your symptoms disappear or get better when you leave home and come back when you return 
  • Others in your household are experiencing symptoms (including your pets) and they appear at a similar time 

 

What should I do if I experience any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

  • Get fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows, turn off gas appliances and leave the house
  • See your doctor immediately or go to hospital – let them know that you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. They can do a blood or breath test to check 
  • If you think there is immediate danger, call the Gas Emergency Helpline 
  • Get a Gas Safe registered engineer to inspect your gas appliances and flues to see if there is a dangerous problem 

Don’t assume your gas appliances are safe: get a Gas Safe registered gas engineer to do a check. This is the only safe way to prevent yourself and those around you from incurring serious illness or death due to carbon monoxide exposure.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a highly poisonous substance produced by the incomplete burning of gas and Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG).

This happens when a gas appliance has been incorrectly fitted, badly repaired or poorly maintained. It can also occur if flues, chimneys or vents are blocked.

Oil and solid fuels such as coal, wood, petrol and oil can also produce carbon monoxide.

What is carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when you breathe in even small amounts of the gas.
When you breathe in carbon monoxide, it gets into your blood stream and prevents your red blood cells from carrying oxygen. Without oxygen, your body tissue and cells die.
Levels that do not kill can cause serious harm to health when breathed in over a long period of time. Long term effects of carbon monoxide poisoning include Paralysis and brain damage. Such long term effects occur because many people are unaware of unsafe gas appliances and subsequent gas leaks.

How do I avoid a carbon monoxide leak in my home?

Your home may show signs of carbon monoxide. Any one of the following could be a sign that there is carbon monoxide in your home. Get your gas appliances checked to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • The flame on your cooker should be crisp and blue. Lazy yellow or orange flames mean you need to get your cooker checked
  • Soot or yellow/brown staining around or on appliances 
  • Pilot lights that frequently blow out 
  • Increased condensation inside windows 

If you have a faulty appliance in your home, it could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Get it checked as soon as possible by a Gas Safe registered engineer.

Why should I get a carbon monoxide alarm?

Because carbon monoxide has no taste, smell or colour. Gas Safe Register strongly recommends you fit an audible carbon monoxide alarm in your home. While an alarm will alert you to carbon monoxide in your home, it is no substitute for using a Gas Safe registered engineer.

A carbon monoxide alarm looks similar to a smoke alarm and is very easy to fit by following the manufacturer’s instructions. You can purchase a carbon monoxide alarm for under £20 at your local DIY store, supermarket or from your energy supplier.

Before purchasing a carbon monoxide alarm, always make sure it is officially approved to EN 50291. It must have a British or European approval mark on it, such as a Kitemark.

You are particularly at risk from carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping, as you may not be aware of early carbon monoxide symptoms until it’s too late. Do not use the ‘black spot’ detectors that change colour when carbon monoxide is present. These will not make a sound to wake you up if the poisonous gas is present while you are sleeping.

  1. What is carbon monoxide (CO) and how is it produced?

    Carbon monoxide (CO) is a deadly, colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. It is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas. Products and equipment powered by internal combustion engine-powered equipment such as portable generators, cars, lawn mowers, and power washers also produce CO.

  2. How many people are unintentionally poisoned by CO?

    On average, about 170 people in the United States die every year from CO produced by non-automotive consumer products. These products include malfunctioning fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, ranges, water heaters and room heaters; engine-powered equipment such as portable generators; fireplaces; and charcoal that is burned in homes and other enclosed areas. In 2005 alone, CPSC staff is aware of at least 94 generator-related CO poisoning deaths. Forty-seven of these deaths were known to have occurred during power outages due to severe weather, including Hurricane Katrina. Still others die from CO produced by non-consumer products, such as cars left running in attached garages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that several thousand people go to hospital emergency rooms every year to be treated for CO poisoning.

  3. What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

    Because CO is odorless, colorless, and otherwise undetectable to the human senses, people may not know that they are being exposed. The initial symptoms of low to moderate CO poisoning are similar to the flu (but without the fever). They include:

    • Headache
    • Fatigue
    • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea
    • Dizziness

    High level CO poisoning results in progressively more severe symptoms, including:

     

    • Mental confusion
    • Vomiting
    • Loss of muscular coordination
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Ultimately death

    Symptom severity is related to both the CO level and the duration of exposure. For slowly developing residential CO problems, occupants and/or physicians can mistake mild to moderate CO poisoning symptoms for the flu, which sometimes results in tragic deaths. For rapidly developing, high level CO exposures (e.g., associated with use of generators in residential spaces), victims can rapidly become mentally confused, and can lose muscle control without having first experienced milder symptoms; they will likely die if not rescued.

  4. How can I prevent CO poisoning?
    • Make sure appliances are installed and operated according to the manufacturer’s instructions and local building codes. Most appliances should be installed by qualified professionals. Have the heating system professionally inspected and serviced annually to ensure proper operation. The inspector should also check chimneys and flues for blockages, corrosion, partial and complete disconnections, and loose connections.
    • Never service fuel-burning appliances without proper knowledge, skill and tools. Always refer to the owners manual when performing minor adjustments or servicing fuel-burning equipment.
    • Never operate a portable generator or any other gasoline engine-powered tool either in or near an enclosed space such as a garage, house, or other building. Even with open doors and windows, these spaces can trap CO and allow it to quickly build to lethal levels.
    • Install a CO alarm that meets the requirements of the current UL 2034 or CSA 6.19 safety standards. A CO alarm can provide some added protection, but it is no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that can produce CO. Install a CO alarm in the hallway near every separate sleeping area of the home. Make sure the alarm cannot be covered up by furniture or draperies.
    • Never use portable fuel-burning camping equipment inside a home, garage, vehicle or tent unless it is specifically designed for use in an enclosed space and provides instructions for safe use in an enclosed area.
    • Never burn charcoal inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.
    • Never leave a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
    • Never use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens, or clothes dryers to heat your home.
    • Never operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in any room where people are sleeping.
    • Do not cover the bottom of natural gas or propane ovens with aluminum foil. Doing so blocks the combustion air flow through the appliance and can produce CO.
    • During home renovations, ensure that appliance vents and chimneys are not blocked by tarps or debris. Make sure appliances are in proper working order when renovations are complete.
  5. What CO level is dangerous to my health?

    The health effects of CO depend on the CO concentration and length of exposure, as well as each individual’s health condition. CO concentration is measured in parts per million (ppm). Most people will not experience any symptoms from prolonged exposure to CO levels of approximately 1 to 70 ppm but some heart patients might experience an increase in chest pain. As CO levels increase and remain above 70 ppm, symptoms become more noticeable and can include headache, fatigue and nausea. At sustained CO concentrations above 150 to 200 ppm, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death are possible.

  6. What should I do if I am experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning and do not have a CO alarm, or my CO alarm is not going off?

    If you think you are experiencing any of the symptoms of CO poisoning, get outside to fresh air immediately. Leave the home and call your fire department to report your symptoms from a neighbor’s home. You could lose consciousness and die if you stay in the home. It is also important to contact a doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis. Tell your doctor that you suspect CO poisoning is causing your problems. Prompt medical attention is important if you are experiencing any symptoms of CO poisoning. If the doctor confirms CO poisoning, make sure a qualified service person checks the appliances for proper operation before reusing them.

  7. Are CO alarms reliable?

    CO alarms always have been and still are designed to alarm before potentially life-threatening levels of CO are reached. The safety standards for CO alarms have been continually improved and currently marketed CO alarms are not as susceptible to nuisance alarms as earlier models.

  8. How should a consumer test a CO alarm to make sure it is working?

    Consumers should follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Using a test button tests whether the circuitry is operating correctly, not the accuracy of the sensor. Alarms have a recommended replacement age, which can be obtained from the product literature or from the manufacturer.

  9. How should I install a CO Alarm?

    CO alarms should be installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. CPSC recommends that one CO alarm be installed in the hallway outside the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area of the home. CO alarms may be installed into a plug-in receptacle or high on the wall. Hard wired or plug-in CO alarms should have battery backup. Avoid locations that are near heating vents or that can be covered by furniture or draperies. CPSC does not recommend installing CO alarms in kitchens or above fuel-burning appliances.

  10. What should you do when the CO alarm sounds?

    Never ignore an alarming CO alarm! It is warning you of a potentially deadly hazard. If the alarm signal sounds do not try to find the source of the CO:

     

    1. Immediately move outside to fresh air.
    2. Call your emergency services, fire department, or 911.
    3. After calling 911, do a head count to check that all persons are accounted for. DO NOT reenter the premises until the emergency services responders have given you permission. You could lose consciousness and die if you go in the home.
    4. If the source of the CO is determined to be a malfunctioning appliance, DO NOT operate that appliance until it has been properly serviced by trained personnel.

    If authorities allow you to return to your home, and your alarm reactivates within a 24 hour period, repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 and call a qualified appliance technician to investigate for sources of CO from all fuel burning equipment and appliances, and inspect for proper operation of this equipment. If problems are identified during this inspection, have the equipment serviced immediately. Note any combustion equipment not inspected by the technician and consult the manufacturers’ instructions, or contact the manufacturers directly, for more information about CO safety and this equipment. Make sure that motor vehicles are not, and have not been, operating in an attached garage or adjacent to the residence.

  11. What is the role of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in preventing CO poisoning?

    CPSC staff worked closely with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to help develop the safety standard (UL 2034) for CO alarms. CPSC helps promote carbon monoxide safety by raising awareness of CO hazards and the need for correct use and regular maintenance of fuel-burning appliances. CPSC staff also works with stakeholders to develop voluntary and mandatory standards for fuel-burning appliances and conducts independent research into CO alarm performance under likely home-use conditions.

  12. Do some cities require that CO alarms be installed?

    Many states and local jurisdictions now require CO alarms be installed in residences. Check with your local building code official to find out about the requirements in your location.

  13. Should CO alarms be used in motor homes and other recreational vehicles?

    CO alarms are available for boats and recreational vehicles and should be used. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association requires CO alarms in motor homes and in towable recreational vehicles that have a generator or are prepped for a generator.

Consumers can obtain this publication and additional publication information from the Publications section of CPSC’s web site or by sending your publication request to info@cpsc.gov.