The silent killer

Carbon monoxide (CO) isn’t called the silent killer for no reason. This colourless, odourless gas can make people and their pets seriously ill and, in some cases, even cause death.

Know the signs

The human body can quickly and easily absorb CO. Once inhaled, this poisonous gas combines with oxygen-carrying haemoglobin to form carboxyhaemoglobin, which inhibits the transference of oxygen around the body. This effectively starves organs of oxygen, affecting the heart, brain and central nervous system.

According to the CIPHE, symptoms of CO poisoning are often flu-like and their severity depends on the amount of carbon monoxide inhaled. Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, breathlessness, nausea, collapse and loss of consciousness.

Negative impact

Exposure to CO can cause all sorts of health issues, such as rapid and irregular heartbeat, decreasing blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmias, heart blocks, ventricular ectopic beats, heart attack and death.

CO poisoning can also cause cerebral edema (swelling) on the brain, where cells swell and crush each other, resulting in diffuse brain injury and precipitating seizures. In some cases, this can cause irreversible damage to the brain that can affect the nervous system.

CO poisoning can be mis-diagnosed as flu or gastroenteritis through its symptoms. Due to its effects on the brain and nervous system it can also be mis-diagnosed as a neurological or psychiatric disorder.

Risk factor

Anyone who is exposed to CO and inhales unsafe levels of the gas will suffer some degree of poisoning. However, those who are more vulnerable, such as children, the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions and pregnant women, will be harder hit than other people. Exposure to high levels of CO during pregnancy can reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the baby in the womb, potentially affecting its growth and development. Carbon monoxide poisoning can lead to suffocation and death of the mother and baby.

People already suffering from a heart condition can succumb more rapidly to carbon monoxide, as can those with respiratory health problems. Smokers are at a higher risk as they will already have elevated levels of carboxyhaemoglobin in their blood.

Pets display symptoms at a faster rate and will show the same kind of effects as humans (dizziness, nausea, fatigue, disorientation, irritability, weakness, lack of co-ordination, convulsions, coma, death).

Personal protection

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, around 4,000 people visit A&E each year, with 440 hospital admissions as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning and, according to the Office of National Statistics, 116 people died from the toxic effects of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2020.

Most plumbing and heating engineers would recommend that customers install a carbon monoxide alarm for their own safety, but few consider their own health when carrying out work.

As part of this year’s Gas Safety Week, Arctic Hayes urged installers to protect themselves from the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning by carrying a personal carbon monoxide alarm.

“As well as raising the awareness of gas safety among homeowners, the safety of Gas Safe engineers must be a priority – not just during Gas Safety Week, but at every site visit,” says Lee Parsons, CEO of Arctic Hayes. “Carrying a personal carbon monoxide alarm could save your life and provides peace of mind while on site.”

Useful links

To find out more about CO poisoning and symptoms, visit this site

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