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The secret killer in your home?

An unseen killer is stalking homes throughout the land, warns Judy Hobson

Each year a silent assassin claims 40 lives in England and Wales and is responsible for thousands of hospital visits.

Most of us do not even suspect when he is lurking in our midst for the simple reason that while we have installed smoke and burglar alarms in our homes, we have not invested in ones that detect the presence of carbon monoxide (CO)- a gas toxic to humans that can lead to death within just a couple of hours. 

People with breathing difficulties and those suffering from heart disease are especially at risk from the gas's debilitating effects. A tension-type headache is the most common symptom of mild Co poisoning, while significant exposure can cause seizures, angina and memory problems as well as vision and hearing loss.

Because CO is not only colour less and tasteless but also odourless, it is difficult to detect. It forms when fuels such as gas, coal, charcoal, wood and oil are not able to burn fully. This occurs when appliances such as boilers, water heaters, cookers and gas fires have not been correctly installed or maintained properly and where ventilation is poor, either because vents have been covered up or chimneys and flues have become blocked.

Often a pet if the first to display signs of CO poisoning, because the smaller the animal or person, the faster they are affected. So if your pet suddenly becomes ill or dies unexpectedly and this is not related to old age or another obvious cause, it could be the result of CO poisoning.

To survive we all need oxygen, but when fuel burns in an enclosed room, the supply of it gradually gets used up and is replaced by carbon dioxide. If this builds up, because of a faulty appliance or as a result of poor ventilation, the fuel is unable to burn fully and starts releasing carbon monoxide.

This threatens our health and very survival, because the CO binds tightly to the haemoglobin in our red blood cells, reducing the amount of oxygen that can travel around our body, causing cells and tissue to die.

The initial symptoms of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning- headache, nausea, dizziness and fatigue- are frequently mistaken for flu or food poisoning ad therefore can get overlooked. Over time, exposure to CO gas can lead to neurological symptoms such as mood swings, impulsive decisions, confusion and difficulty thinking, and sufferers may even suspect they are experiencing the early signs of dementia.

If problems such as difficulty breathing, generalised weakness, headaches and drowsiness persist, they should alert sufferers to the fact that a gas appliance, wood-burner or coal fire in their home may be the potential source. An even stronger indication is if they find their symptoms are less severe when they are away from home for any length of time. This is a definite warning sign that hey need to get their home checked over as soon as possible.

Another question to ask yourself is: "Do I tend to get these symptoms more frequently in the winter when my central heating is on or after I switch on my gas fire to make my living room feel cosy?" these, to, can be warning signs, indicating that your boiler is not working properly or that your home is not adequately ventilated. 

If you think you may have CO poisoning, seek medical advice. A blood test will confirm the diagnosis and indicate your level of exposure. Treatment consists of oxygen therapy where you breathe in 100 percent oxygen through a tight fitting mask until the level of oxygen in your haemoglobin is back to normal. Before returning home, your house will have to be thoroughly aired and the source of the gas located and eliminated.

Sarah Hill is the stakeholders' relations manager for the Gas Safe Register, which took over from Corgi-registered engineers in 2009. It is under contract to the Health and Safety Executive and has the only official list of gas engineers registered to work safely and legally with gas in the UK.

Sarah says: "One death from carbon monoxide poisoning is one death too many and we're working hard to raise awareness so that every home is safe. I spend my time talking to all kinds of organisations to raise awareness of the dangers from this gas.

"Because you can't see, taste or smell it, it is vital people have all their appliances serviced every year so they are properly maintained and there are no leaks. People tend to just think of their boilers and forget about the gas fire in the living room which they only use at Christmas but it could be posing a risk."

Sarah believes that some people may not appreciate there is a difference between a smoke alarm and one that is able to detect carbon monoxide.

She adds: "After having your appliances serviced by a Gas Safe registered engineer, a carbon monoxide alarm is your second line of defence. We're busy urging carers to notice whether there is a carbon monoxide alarm when they go into someone's home and, if not, to draw attention to the fact. 

"Because I'm so aware of the danger posed by CO, I gave each of my grown-up children a CO alarm when they went to university. I'd encourage all parents and grandparents to do the same because this will not only increase the nation's awareness but also help keep those you love safe.

"I also urge everyone to familiarise themselves with the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and to recognise the tell-tale signs that indicate an appliance needs servicing."

These include staining around the outside of the appliance such as black or brown sooty marks on the front of a gas fire, finding excessive condensation in a room and the flame from your hob being raggedy and yellow instead of blue and crisp.

Sarah also warns: "In a power cut don't be tempted to light the rings on your hob to keep warm because this could lead to a build-up of CO in your kitchen. Remember that the rings were not designed for this purpose.

"And don't be tempted to stop draughts by blocking up air vents. They are there for safety reasons, and in the airtight boxes we live in today is a vital to have ventilation." 

Find out more and discuss your safety tips 

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