If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t thought too much about carbon monoxide. But carbon monoxide is a common cause of fatal poisoning in homes around the world – and the number of cases of poisoning is on the rise in Australia too.
In 2010, Chase and Tyler Robinson died from carbon monoxide poisoning from an unserviced gas heater in their rental property. They were only eight and six years old.
The Chase & Tyler Foundation is a national, not-for-profit organisation which was established to reduce the number of deaths and injuries throughout Australia caused by carbon monoxide. Through the efforts of the foundation to educate communities about this health hazard, Chase and Tyler’s legacy of saving Australian lives will live on.
Visit the Chase and Tyler Foundation
You can't see it and you can't smell it
It’s a colourless, odourless and non-irritant gas, which means you can’t tell when it’s present in the air – so you may not realise the danger until it’s too late.
Where Carbon Monoxide is Found
Carbon monoxide can come from many sources within the home. These include heating systems, inadequate ventilation in the home and garage, blocked flues and chimneys, and leakage from faulty appliances.
It’s produced when the combustion of carbon containing fuels, including gas, coal, oil and wood is incomplete. In the home this can occur when appliances are operated in areas with poor ventilation, and are not serviced regularly or properly maintained. The problem is not restricted to older homes only – if ventilation is inadequate it can occur in newer homes too.
When the waste products of combustion are not removed, a poisonous gas mixture can occur, and this is when the danger to health and life exists. Look out for black soot marks near appliances and yellow gas flames instead of blue, as these are signs that carbon monoxide could be present.
The Effects of Carbon Monoxide
When carbon monoxide is inhaled it interferes with our ability to get oxygen to our body and tissues. It also affects our blood vessels and causes them to become leaky, which can lead to unconsciousness and neurological damage.
Carbon monoxide poisoning happens gradually and the severity depends on the amount inhaled and duration of exposure. Your state of health and activity levels also have an impact, and if you’re a child, elderly or pregnant, the risk of damage is even greater.
Symptoms include headache, nausea and vomiting, vertigo, altering states of consciousness and weakness. The symptoms are similar to those of other common ailments, and this can make it difficult for both patient and doctor to identify. For this reason, it’s highly likely that there is an under diagnosis of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Diagnosing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Exposure to carbon monoxide can be experienced in two ways: acute or chronic. Acute exposure occurs when you’re exposed to high levels over a short time, and chronic exposure is the result of lower levels over a longer period of time.
The symptoms of acute exposure are more obvious, which makes it easier to diagnose. The symptoms of chronic exposure are usually subtle, so it can often be confused with other conditions. It’s likely to be carbon monoxide poisoning in situations where everyone in the house is affected, the symptoms get worse when gas appliances or heaters are in use, and when the symptoms are happening repeatedly. Another indicator is when symptoms improve when you leave the house, and then return again when you get home.
Download the Carbon Monoxide The Silent Killer Fact Sheet
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
- Confusion/Memory loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abnormal reflexes
- Difficulty in coordinating
- Difficulty in breathing
- Chest Pain
- Cerebral Edema
How Carbon Monoxide Poisoning is Treated
Treatment will depend on the severity of exposure, and in most cases hospitalisation is required. The first step is usually oxygen via a mask, and the level of carbon monoxide present is measured by the air breathed out or a blood sample. In severe cases and where nerve damage is suspected, hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be considered. This treatment involves the patient being exposed to oxygen at high pressure while in a sealed pressure chamber, and it’s generally recommended when there is a loss of consciousness, neurological signs, abnormal heart rhythm and for women who are pregnant.
How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Your Home
There is a general lack of knowledge of the risks associated with carbon monoxide, and raising awareness with family, friends and colleagues is an important step in prevention. Within your own home you can reduce your risk by being aware of potential sources and making sure they are serviced regularly and are in good working order – and most importantly, that there is adequate ventilation whenever they are in use.
A simple, affordable and effective way to ensure your family’s safety is to install a carbon monoxide detector alarm. These alarms work like a smoke detector and provide early warning of any carbon monoxide that is present in your home.
If the alarm sounds, immediately move everyone out of the house and into fresh air. If any symptoms of poisoning are present seek medical assistance – call 000 for an ambulance if necessary. If no symptoms are occurring, turn off all your gas or fuel burning appliances, open all windows and doors to ventilate the house and contact a professional to check your appliances promptly.
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. By checking your ventilation, servicing your appliances and installing a carbon monoxide alarm, you can have peace of mind that your family is protected.