The dangers of a carbon monoxide leak in the home can be a scary thought, especially as it can’t be detected by smell, taste or sight. Carbon monoxide (CO) is an incredibly poisonous gas that poses a serious threat to health if exposure occurs and each year there are around 40 deaths in England and Wales from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Below, you’ll find information on what makes carbon monoxide a danger, where it comes from, and how you can minimise the chances of a carbon monoxide leak and exposure in your home, from adjoining premises, or a whole host of other locations.

First off, if you suspect that you may have a carbon monoxide leak in your property, call the National Gas Emergency number on 0800 111 999*.

What should I do if I suspect carbon monoxide?

  • Open all doors and windows
  • Move outside into fresh air
  • Call the Gas Emergency Service on 0800 111 999*

What does carbon monoxide smell like?

Carbon monoxide has no smell at all, making it very difficult to detect a leak. Further to that, you can’t taste or see the gas either - this is part of the reason it’s known as ‘The Silent Killer’. Having working audible carbon monoxide alarms in your home and learning to spot the physical signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning is essential in minimising the health risks posed by a leak.

What are the signs to look for?

If you spot any of the signs below, it doesn’t definitely mean that there is a release of carbon monoxide, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
 
  • Gas flame appears ‘floppy’ and burns orange or yellow rather than mostly blue
  • Pilot light frequently blows out
  • There is soot or yellow-brown staining on or around an appliance
  • You see or smell smoke or have excessive condensation in the room where you have a gas appliance.
If you suspect a leak, call the National Gas Emergency number on 0800 111 999*.

Why is carbon monoxide dangerous?

After you’ve inhaled carbon monoxide, it enters your bloodstream and begins to mix with the haemoglobin. This creates carboxyhaemoglobin, with a level of 30% of carboxyhaemoglobin indicating severe exposure. This process makes it impossible for your blood to carry oxygen around the body, leading to illness, tissue and cell failure and, from long term exposure, potential paralysis and brain damage.

There are several symptoms caused by carbon monoxide poisoning including:
 
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Breathlessness
  • Nausea or feeling sick
  • Collapse
  • Loss of consciousness
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and they can’t be explained by any other reason, such as another illness you’re already aware of, or you immediately feel better when leaving the property, there’s a chance you’ve been or are being exposed to carbon monoxide. Some people often describe the early symptoms of exposure as being flu-like, or even feeling like being hungover. If you’ve experienced these early symptoms or know you’ve been exposed to low levels of carbon monoxide, you should seek medical advice from your GP.

The effects of carbon monoxide exposure get worse over time, meaning early detection is vital. Over an extended period of carbon monoxide exposure, some of the following symptoms may occur:
 
  • Vision and memory loss
  • Confusion and difficulty thinking
  • Changes in mood
  • Chest pain
Some of these symptoms will only come from inhaling high levels of carbon monoxide but can have potentially fatal results. It’s also important to remember that these symptoms could also happen in the first instance, so Immediate medical help should be sought if you begin to experience these symptoms.

Where does carbon monoxide come from?

Carbon monoxide is produced by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels. There are several ways that this can occur, including poorly fitted or maintained gas appliances and blocked chimneys or vents. It can also be produced by BBQs, wood burners and generators.

There are several gas appliances that can cause carbon monoxide leaks, these include:
 
  • Free-standing gas heaters
  • Gas cookers
  • Gas fires
  • Boilers and water heaters
Carbon monoxide can also be produced as a biproduct of burning solid fuels like coal, wood or petrol. This means that charcoal fires, running cars and cigarette smoke are all common producers of carbon monoxide. Here are some examples of carbon monoxide in everyday life:
 
  • Running a car in a closed garage can create deadly levels of carbon monoxide within ten minutes
  • A lit fire with a blocked flue or chimney will prevent carbon monoxide from escaping and produce it into your home.
  • Using a BBQ in a confined space without proper ventilation or bringing it inside a caravan or tent after use can result in dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

Minimising the risks of carbon monoxide

In order to minimise the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning, you should take the following steps:
 
  • Ensure that all gas appliances are properly installed and regularly serviced on an annual basis. This work should be carried out by a Gas Safe Registered engineer.
  • Ensure that all chimneys and flues are regularly cleaned to prevent blockages, this should also be done annually.
  • Fitting carbon monoxide alarms within your home and testing them regularly. Alarms should be fitted around three metres from an appliance at door height. This would ideally be in each room where there’s a gas appliance fitted. 
  • Carbon monoxide alarms can be purchased from DIY stores for around £15.
Remember, carbon monoxide poisoning is deadly, so if you’re worried you may have been exposed or there could be a leak in your property, you should act as quickly as possible. You can call the National Gas Emergency number on 0800 111 999*.


Carbon monoxide outside your home

CO doesn't just pose a danger in the home. There are an increasing number of CO related incidents that happen outside the home.
 

  • BBQs – BBQs can produce CO even when they are working well. Stay safe and NEVER take a BBQ in your tent or caravan even after it’s gone out as it can give off deadly carbon monoxide for hours after being extinguished.
  • On holiday –  there is a risk you might be exposed to CO when you are on holiday, whether you’re camping, staying in a cottage, villa, caravan or in a luxury resort you could be at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in the UK and abroad.
  • On the water - CO poisoning can occur on boats when emissions from gas-powered engines and generators build up in boat cabins. It's important to make sure they are kept in good condition, checked regularly and areas are well ventilated.

 
CO alarms save lives – don’t travel without one and make sure you come home safely

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Teaching children in schools about carbon monoxide

We are on a mission to raise awareness about carbon monoxide and to help keep your family safe. One of the ways we are doing this is by teaching children in schools about carbon monoxide with the help of Safety Seymour. and The CO Crew

Teaching children about carbon monoxide

Further advice

How do I choose a carbon monoxide (CO) alarm?
How do I install a carbon monoxide (CO) alarm?
What are the signs of carbon monoxide to look out for within properties?
How do I get my gas appliances checked?