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Making homes safe from carbon monoxide poisoning

How dangerous is carbon monoxide (CO) and what can you do to help protect against a leak of this deadly gas? Expert lawyer Gavin Evans of Simpson Millar Solicitors offers explanation and advice.

In winter many of us are turning the central heating on more frequently and lighting gas fires, open fires and wood burners.

The Health and Safety Executive has recently published details of prosecutions in which sadly two pensioners died from carbon monoxide poisoning which highlight that a blockage of the flue or chimney can be fatal.

In one case, the judge fined a cavity wall insulation company £500,000 after an 83-year old from Middleton was tragically killed by CO poisoning after the flue to her gas boiler became blocked by the cavity wall insulation beads.

In another, a chimney sweep was fined £5000 after a 73-year-old from Maesteg, Wales was killed from CO poisoning after the sweep failed to notice and remove a bird’s nest from the chimney whilst carrying out his sweep.

Exposure to CO is not always fatal, but even fortunate enough to survive can be left with profound life-long effects to their health.

These tragedies are so easily avoidable and preventable. Here are some essential maintenance tips for home-owners.

Have the chimney regularly swept

If there’s a chimney which services a gas or solid fuel appliance, make sure it is regularly swept and maintained. When fuels burn, carbon monoxide is a by-product of the combustion and is released into the chimney. The purpose of the chimney is to remove this deadly fumes from the living area.

If there is a blockage, the room will not be adequately ventilated and the carbon monoxide will not be able to escape out of the chimney. The Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps recommends that all chimneys servicing gas appliances need to be cleaned annually.

Have boiler and gas appliances regularly serviced

Make sure boiler and gas appliances are regularly serviced and maintained. Most gas suppliers offer annual maintenance contracts which are highly recommended.

Regularly clean cooker hob and grill

Keep the cooker clean and don’t allow a build up of food deposits as this can starve the flame of oxygen and cause release of CO.

Ensure there is adequate ventilation in the property

Make sure that the property and individual rooms are adequately ventilated and that in the battle to keep heat in crucial flue or extraction fan ventilation don’t get blocked.

Watch for warning signs

Be vigilant for the visible signs that a gas appliance may be emitting CO, such as:

  • Soot or yellowish brown staining on or around appliances or walls
  • Pilot light blowing out frequently
  • Increased condensation inside windows
  • Flames burning yellow or orange instead of blue (except flueless appliances or fuel effect fires)

Fit a carbon monoxide alarm

Fit a CO alarm in every room with a fuel burning appliance. We recommend you purchase an alarm to British Safety Standard EN 50291. You may be able to obtain one free of charge. Many fire services and charities offer promotions with free CO and smoke alarms so it is well worth checking for any deals.

It is recommended that the CO alarm should be positioned at head height approximately 1-3 metres away from the fuel source.

Check the batteries in the CO alarm regularly

Check that the batteries are fitted and working to the alarm. It is recommended by the government that you check them monthly.

Be aware of symptoms

Make sure everyone is aware of the symptoms or CO poisoning as they can easily be confused with flu:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Lethargy
  • Breathlessness
  • Collapse
  • Loss of consciousness

Act immediately

If anyone suspects there is a CO leak of any description they should visit their GP or A&E immediately to be tested.

CO dissipates from the blood very quickly so a rapid test is important for early and accurate diagnosis so that the person can be put on the right treatment path as soon as possible.

Gas leaks

A gas leak is a different problem and needs a different cause of action. It’s worth keeping a note of the National Gas Emergency Service somewhere obvious just in case and make sure the house inhabitants know how to turn off the gas.

If anyone smells gas, the best cause of action is:

  • Call the National Gas Emergency Service on 0800 111 999 (in the UK)
  • Switch off the appliance and shut off the gas supply at the meter control valve
  • Open all doors and windows immediately

This article was written in 2015.

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