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Carbon Monoxide: the hidden killer

Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that has no colour, smell or taste. Breathing it in can kill you if you're exposed to high levels.

There are around 60 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning in England and Wales every year. Many occur in winter months when heating systems are in use, but they can occur all year.

When you breathe it in, it enters the bloodstream and mixes with haemoglobin to form carboxyhaemoglobin. This means that the blood is no longer able to carry oxygen, causing the body's cells and tissue to fail and die.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning aren't always obvious. Symptoms include:

  • dizziness

  • tension-type headaches

  • feeling and being sick

  • tiredness and confusion

  • stomach pain

  • shortness of breath and difficulty breathing

  • loss of balance, vision and memory

  • difficulty thinking or concentrating

  • frequent emotional changes - easily irritated, depressed or making irrational decisions.

  • intoxication

  • vertigo

  • loss of physical co-ordination (ataxia)

  • breathlessness and a fast heart rate

  • chest pain

  • seizure

  • loss of consciousness / death

Your symptoms may be less severe when you're away from the source of the carbon monoxide, so you should investigate the possibility of a carbon monoxide leak and ask a suitably qualified professional to check any appliances you think may be faulty and leaking gas.

You can lose consciousness within 2 hours if there's a lot of carbon monoxide in the air.

When fuels such as gas, oil, coal and wood do not burn fully, carbon monoxide is produced. Charcoal burning, running vehicles, and cigarettes also produce the deadly gas. It is therefore vitally important that you regularly service and maintain the following using a fully qualified Gas Safe Engineer:​

  • boilers

  • gas fires

  • central heating systems

  • water heaters

  • cookers

  • open fires

Incorrectly installed, poorly maintained or poorly ventilated household appliances are the most common causes of accidental exposure to carbon monoxide.

The risk of exposure to carbon monoxide from portable devices may also be higher in caravans, boats and mobile homes.