Carbon monoxide poisoning – and how you can help your whole family


So what is carbon monoxide?

"Although you can't see, smell or taste carbon monoxide (CO) gas, it's highly poisonous," says Simpson Millar LLP's Bryan Nott. "It's produced by burning some types of fossil fuels, and it can leak from domestic heating appliances. It's also present in vehicle exhaust fumes. Old people and children, even unborn, are most at risk."

How does it work?

Oxygen is transported around your body by the haemoglobin in your red blood cells. Since CO combines with haemoglobin up to 300 times more readily than oxygen, your blood's oxygen-carrying capacity can be blocked.

"CO stops oxygen getting to your tissues," says Bryan, "inhibiting cell growth and creating inflammation, potentially causing neurological damage and killing cells in vital organs like the heart."

More risks to children

An unborn child is at the highest risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, because foetal haemoglobin combines with CO even more readily than with an adult.

Bryan notes that when a pregnant woman inhales carbon monoxide, the CO saturation of her unborn baby's blood will be higher than her own CO level. "Developing organs are more likely to be permanently damaged than mature organs. Possible results can be foetal death, low birth weight, heart problems and brain damage."

"New-born babies are at risk in similar ways. Infants breathe more rapidly than adults and have a higher metabolic rate, making them more vulnerable. Per pound of body weight, a sleeping infant inhales twice as much air as a sleeping adult."

What about the long-term?

Oxygen usually helps children exposed to CO get better. "If you think your children have inhaled CO, get them out into the fresh air and find medical help," says Bryan. "Although children under 5 are the most common victims of accidental CO poisoning, they have the lowest fatality rate."

Official statistics show that the fatality risk rises with age, with CO poisoning fatal in only 0.6% of cases in children under 4. Accidental inhalation isn't normally fatal at any age, with most deaths caused by deliberate acts and suicides.

How children are at risk

Fumes from badly-maintained heating systems are the main causes of accidental inhalation, along with inhalation during house fires.

"Most cases happen over the winter," says Bryan, "with kids and babies asleep at home most at risk. Because of economic conditions, people may put off getting repairs and maintenance carried out to appliances. Whether they are landlords of rented property or home owners this is taking a big risk with safety."

How is CO poisoning prevented?

Bryan recommends that you have boilers, water heaters and gas appliances serviced regularly. "Make sure they vent outdoors, and keep all rooms ventilated and chimneys clear.

"Don't use portable heaters in enclosed spaces. If members of your family complain of headaches, dizziness, breathlessness or lethargy during winter, you should get all your appliances checked.

"This is especially important if others in your family have the same experience at the same time, or if your pets show similar symptoms. Fit carbon monoxide detection alarms outside all bedrooms. Never leave vehicles running in an attached garage, or let children travel in the back of enclosed pick-up vehicles."

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