Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – true death toll could ‘skyrocket’

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It’s estimated that the true death toll from carbon monoxide poisoning could be significantly higher than official figures show after a pilot operation in London.

Carbon monoxide is colourless, odourless and tasteless – yet it is deadly, and leaks from faulty boilers, gas appliances and blocked flues. At real risk are those living in rented properties where appliances have not been installed properly or maintained regularly.

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Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show that in the year to June 2010 4 people died and 117 were taken ill as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning in their own homes. Yet, after the results of the pilot operation involving ambulance crews in London, those official figures could ‘skyrocket’ if the true extent of carbon monoxide incidents across the UK is uncovered.

The Gas Safety Trust charity equipped London ambulance crews with 5 carbon monoxide testing kits over a year-long period. They identified 83 people suffering from poisoning just in London – almost the same figure given for the whole of the UK in 2008-2009. Now the study has been extended to Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham to see if the results are replicated.

The Trust says the true death toll is missed because pathologists do not routinely check for carbon monoxide poisoning in many deaths and so many cases are being missed and put down to other causes.

Misdiagnosis in hospitals is also a problem as the symptoms are so similar to many other conditions and medical staff do not routinely test for the condition. Chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies sent a circular to health professionals in November 2010 warning poisoning was "almost certainly under-diagnosed" and urging "increased vigilance".

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, breathlessness, nausea, dizziness, collapse, fainting, tiredness and vomiting.

In a statement the HSE said "there is a legal requirement to report carbon monoxide poisonings, and while we have confidence in the reports we receive, we accept there will always be a possibility of misdiagnosis".

Six-year-old Elisabeth Giauque died after the ‘silent killer’ leaked from a faulty boiler in her family’s rented home. Doctors believed she was suffering from meningitis and it was hours before the right diagnosis was made, though the levels were so high that she would not have been saved even if diagnosed straight away. 31-year-old Robert Schenker died from carbon monoxide when a flue became blocked in his home. It took 3 months for pathologists to find out his cause of death.

Landlords are required by law to have appliances inspected annually by a qualified engineer, but it is down to you to check the tests have been done. In many types of private rented homes, no statutory body will carry out checks unless a complaint is made or an incident is reported.

Campaigners say the law should be strengthened to include a service of the appliances, as well as a check.

They also want landlords to be forced to fit carbon monoxide detectors in properties.



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