What are the dangers of carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless and non-irritating gas, but it presents a real danger as it has many harmful effects on the health of you and your family. It is also potentially fatal, if there is prolonged exposure. But what are the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning? What devices can be used to guard against it to improve your home security?

Potentially severe symptoms from inhaling carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a gas that represents a real public health problem. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there are around 60 deaths from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in England and Wales each year.

What’s worse is that accidents linked to this gas are the leading cause of poisoning across the globe’s industrialised countries. The reason? The vast number of heating appliances in use in these areas, as well as high levels of combustion in general.

Unlike some other gases, carbon monoxide does not pose a fire hazard. However, it does pose many health risks. Upon inhalation, carbon monoxide molecules quickly replace oxygen molecules in our blood. To explain this in more detail, carbon monoxide molecules take the place of oxygen molecules in our haemoglobin (the red pigment in our blood that carries oxygen throughout our bodies).

This makes the gas highly harmful for our health. What’s more, carbon monoxide is undetectable by human senses, so we’re unable to realise it’s present without the assistance of specific carbon monoxide detecting appliances.

Remaining in a location with leaking carbon monoxide leads to increasingly serious harmful effects, depending on the duration of our exposure to the gas:

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Vision disturbances

  • Stomach pain

  • Vomiting

  • Loss of consciousness

Carbon monoxide can cause fatality after an hour’s exposure. Carbon monoxide poisoning is, therefore, a very real danger. Any symptoms that appear after the few first minutes of exposure to the gas are an indication that you need to vacate the area as quickly as you can.

Experiencing even the mildest of these symptoms is an immediate cause for concern, in particular if you use a combustion heater at home. The more combustion heaters you light, the greater the danger and risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. This includes wood-fuelled heating, oil heating (using fuel oil, gasoline, etc.), or gas heating (using butane, propane, natural gas, etc.).

However, you shouldn’t wait until you’ve experienced symptoms to take preventative measures against carbon monoxide poisoning. Avoiding carbon monoxide-related accidents can be done easily, simply by installing a carbon monoxide detector in your home.

Did you know that carbon monoxide is produced during poor combustion (also known as incomplete combustion) inside a combustion device or engine (gas, wood, gasoline, coal, etc.)?

The unknown dangers of carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide acts as a very poisonous asphyxiant gas. Now you know its many symptoms, from the most uncomfortable to the most dangerous.

The gas enters into our blood in just a few minutes, as we can see from these defined thresholds:

  • 0.1% carbon monoxide in air kills in 1 hour

  • 1% carbon monoxide in the air kills in 15 minutes

  • 10% carbon monoxide in the air kills instantly

Another danger of carbon monoxide, besides of course being highly harmful to the health of all mammals (even fatal), is the fact that it diffuses very quickly in the environment. Unlike smoke, carbon monoxide is heavier than air, so it does not rise to the ceiling. Instead, it mixes with the ambient air.

Chronic and acute: the two types of carbon monoxide poisoning

We often talk about gas poisoning, but there are two types: chronic poisoning and acute poisoning.

Mild carbon monoxide poisoning is called “chronic” and does not have serious consequences. The only symptoms felt are headaches, nausea and possibly a state of mental confusion.

Acute carbon monoxide poisoning is more serious. It can cause dizziness, unconsciousness and muscle impotence, and even lead to coma and death.

The cause of carbon monoxide accidents

Although carbon monoxide is a very dangerous gas emanating from combustion devices, accidents can most often be avoided.

Poor evacuation of combustion products is the first cause of intoxication, because a blocked or poorly sized flue prevents proper combustion and the proper emission of carbon monoxide.

However, other factors can also come into play in carbon monoxide poisoning. For example:

  • A lack of ventilation (or a blocked air outlet) in the room

  • Poor or insufficient maintenance of heating devices

  • Stoves, or even mobile auxiliary heaters, must therefore be checked and maintained regularly.

  • Heaters that are outdated, less safe models

  • Heaters being incorrectly used

Knowing these causes means you are better able to fight accidents.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) can be used to treat carbon monoxide poisoning. HBOT floods the body with pure oxygen, to help it overcome the oxygen shortage caused by the carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide poisoning: what to do?

Carbon monoxide is a highly dangerous gas that must be detected as quickly as possible to limit its impact on our health. It is vital to take action as soon as you observe any symptoms which seem to be caused by exposure to carbon monoxide (when you have a heater on in the middle of winter, for example).

Here are several official recommendations for carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Ventilate the premises as quickly as possible and open windows and doors

  • Immediately shut down combustion appliances throughout the building

  • Evacuate the premises

  • Contact the emergency services: 999

  • Seek the advice of a heating expert or firefighter before returning home

The sooner the first symptoms are detected, the sooner you can take action. A carbon monoxide detector is therefore a good solution to make sure you’re alerted the instant that incomplete combustion within your appliances emits carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real risk factor in domestic settings. To reduce the number of annual cases, it is essential to take precautions with your heating appliances and to equip yourself with a carbon monoxide detector.