Carbon monoxide kills quietly and thrives due to a combination of ignorance and the unscrupulous, but with awareness and vigilance, this lethal spectre can be driven from the nation’s homes.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is known as the “silent killer” for a reason: each year, it kills around 50 people in England and Wales alone, but the ill-effects of poisoning affect thousands more, and can sometimes lead to long-term health issues long after exposure to the gas.
According to the Department of Health, CO poisoning sends approximately 4,000 people to A&E each year, with 200 people hospitalised on average in England and Wales.
The adverse effects of exposure, as well as the deaths, are entirely preventable; however, awareness of the issue and vigilance are required to ensure preventative measures are in place.
Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of death in the home. Because the gas is colourless, odourless, and difficult to detect, we may be unaware that we are inhaling it. Of course, there’s more to it than that, because the side effects are easily misdiagnosed – and thus dismissed – as other, less serious ailments.
“The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are very similar to those of flu and food poisoning, including persistent headaches, sickness, and exhaustion,” said Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer.
According to the brain injury association Headway, acute CO poisoning can cause anoxic brain injury: “[A]cute CO poisoning may lead to quite severe long-term neurological problems, with disturbances in memory, language, cognition, mood, and behaviour.”
It’s easy to see how these could be misinterpreted as natural declines in the mental faculties of the elderly. Pregnant women and young children are also at high risk, but no one is immune to CO’s potentially lethal effects.
Carbon monoxide dangers are at their peak during the winter months, with colder weather prompting the use of heating systems, but it remains a year-round threat due to cooking appliances.
CO is produced as a result of incomplete combustion of fuel – typically but not always natural gas – in domestic heating and cooking appliances. The gas is colourless, odourless, and notoriously difficult to detect; it even appears to give blood a healthy shade of red. The blood is the source of the problems.
The gas’s ill effects are caused not by asphyxiation, but by “squatting” in red blood cells, thereby blocking oxygen.
CO has a high affinity for haemoglobin, the protein in our blood cells that transports and distributes oxygen throughout the body. Blood cells, in fact, have an odd preference for carbon monoxide over oxygen. That is why the gas is so dangerous.
“Although carbon monoxide is difficult to detect, there are some indicators that may indicate a fault with domestic appliances or flues,” said Dr. John Cooper of the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
“Black sooty marks on the radiants – the clay bars above the gas flames – of gas fires, sooty marks on the wall around stoves, boilers, or fires, and smoke accumulating in rooms due to faulty flues” are all signs of trouble.
Yellow rather than blue flames from gas appliances are another sign of a potential problem, though this does not apply to fuel-effect or decorative flame gas fires, which are designed to appear to be burning solid fuel. Pilot lights on appliances that keep going out are also red flags, as is excessive condensation on windows.
As with so many other things in life, being forewarned is forearmed. In some ways, it is ignorance rather than the CO that kills people.
Raising awareness of the sources of CO, the dangers it poses to life and well-being, and the simple measures that can be taken to combat this silent killer is the single most effective way of addressing the problem.
Although awareness is essential, there is one more critical factor to consider. Tragically, as evidenced by the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) slew of prosecutions, there are plenty of people who are more than willing to gamble with other people’s lives. Most homeowners aren’t gas engineers and lack the expertise to safely install and maintain appliances (whether to prevent them from leaking gas and blowing up or gassing us with CO backwash), so they must rely on the experts – but how can they tell the experts from the charlatans?
This is where the Gas Safe Register comes into play. By law, any engineer who instals or maintains a gas appliance must be Gas Safe registered. In April 2009, the gas safety regime replaced the old Corgi accreditation, and it has shown some clear gains in enforcing safety for consumers, though it remains an ongoing effort to ensure we can all safely turn on the hob or the heater.
“Over the past three years, Gas Safe Register’s contribution to public safety has been invaluable,” said Barry Sheerman MP, co-chair of the All Parliamentary Gas Safety Group (APPGSG).
“The register has provided a new approach to raising public awareness of gas dangers, and we hope that as a result, the number of gas-related deaths will be reduced.”
Since the inception of the Gas Safe Register, approximately 2,000 cowboy gas fitters have been investigated, and fitters prosecuted for illegal gas work have paid fines totaling £500,000.
In addition, seven illegal gas fitters have been imprisoned for endangering lives, 120,000 homes have been safety checked, and eight out of ten people are now said to be aware of the register and the importance of gas safety.
“Gas safety is a matter of life and death that affects the entire nation,” said Paul Johnston, CEO of the Gas Safe Register.
“The register was established in 2009 to provide a more focused focus on gas safety and to protect the public from dangerous and illegal work.” We have made significant progress: prior to our launch in 2009, only seven out of ten people were aware of gas risks and the existence of a register.
“Our fight against illegal gas work is still ongoing.” Too many people are taken advantage of by illegal gas fitters, putting their homes and families in immediate danger, and the repairs can cost thousands of dollars. We also need to encourage more people to have their gas appliances checked on a regular basis, as this can be just as dangerous as using unregistered gas fitters. Nine million of the UK’s 21 million gas-powered homes have not had their appliances checked annually, which is concerning.”