The launch of the Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week was held at the House of Lords on the 19th of November. The week is organised by CO-Aware, a charity that supports the many victims of Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning, their families and friends.
A number of very important facts were highlighted during the presentations.
The first of these was the long term effects for people who had suffered long-term exposure to carbon monoxide but had seemingly recovered. There is a common perception that, if a person has been removed from the source of carbon monoxide, they will suffer no long-term problems. Brain specialist Dr Steve White gave a presentation entitled 'Neurobehavioural problems following CO exposure’ which detailed how exposure to the gas can have a long term effects, such as deterioration of brain tissue following exposure to carbon monoxide.
He used the case study of 45 year old graduate in Boston, USA who was exposed to carbon monoxide whilst working in the kitchen of a restaurant. After a long time, it emerged that there was an appliance leaking the gas. Her initial symptoms were flu –like, headache, muscle pain, fatigue, not walking straight and bumping into things, speech and hearing problems, irritability and facial pain. Once the CO leak was removed her most obvious symptoms improved rapidly. The lady was subsequently monitored over many months to determine any long-term impact form the poisoning.
Despite having a very high IQ, the lady, over the following months, experienced problems reading and speaking (missing words). There were incidences of memory loss, short attention span and lack of perseverance when set tasks. She also suffered bouts of depression not experienced before.
These problems were believed to be due to the damage caused by carbon monoxide to the basal ganglia of the brain.
The neurobehavioural effects of exposure will vary between individuals and will depend on length and degree of exposure. One in three people who have been exposed to CO and seemingly recovered could experience illness symptoms about six weeks later.
There has been quite a lot of publicity this year around tragedies where campers have died from carbon monoxide poisoning after taking a barbeque into a tent for warmth. Mark Pratten from Cornwall Fire and Rescue is an evangelist for raising awareness of CO poisoning and has been taking the message across the county’s camp sites and caravan sites. Unfortunately, whilst people know not to take the barbeques into the tent they assume that this is due to the fire risk and that dying embers on the other hand are quite safe. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Mark's short talk at the launch provided previously unrecognised information. Tests carried out in Cornwall found that when a barbeque was no longer hot enough for cooking, and was in fact only very slightly warm to the touch, it was emitting MORE carbon monoxide than when it was hot, and at extremely dangerous levels. If a tray with a warm, disposable barbeque was taken into a closed tent, the CO levels rose up to 900ppm, a level which is potentially deadly.
The same applies to embers from an open fire within a house. Their CO creation potential must not be underestimated and chimneys must not be blocked or air vents closed after a fire until all embers have completely died down. Also, buckets with hot ash must be taken out of the house immediately.
Dr Ombarish Banerjee talked about his ‘conversion’ to the awareness of the dangers of CO poisoning. Because symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning mimic so many common health problems, most victims don’t even know they are actually being poisoned. And the same goes for doctors. It is certain that many cases go undiagnosed and are put down to a virus or something similar.
GPs perceive the problem to be rare and more likely to turn up in Accident and Emergency centres. While many doctors have CO readers these are mainly used to show people, who are giving up smoking, how their CO levels have dropped. However, these devices could also be used to assess potential CO victims; however, one must keep in mind that their readings will have dropped significantly since leaving their homes, so misreadings are possible.
Dr Banerjee has been involved in producing a video that is being sent out to GPs and other areas in the NHS aimed at raising awareness.
Other presentations at the launch included stories from victims and relatives. CO- Awareness is fighting to obtain better facilities for victims. Until the effects are more widely recognised this will be an uphill task.
Positive news is that the government is looking at ways to link compulsory installation of CO alarms to the ‘Green Deal’. However, it is estimated that five million homes have poorly maintained, damaged or incorrectly installed fuel burning devices that could emit carbon monoxide. And as we live now in better insulated homes, the problem could become worse, as any carbon monoxide leakage will not be vented quickly.
The CO problem will be around for a long time yet.
Many people are unaware of the devastating effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon Monoxide has no colour, smell or taste and cannot be detected by the human senses. It is extremely dangerous, binding itself to the haemoglobin in red blood cells and preventing them from transporting oxygen around the body.
According to statistics released by the Office for National Statistics, throughout England and Wales there are an average of over 60 deaths every year due to accidental exposure to carbon monoxide - up to 45% of which occur in the home.
Figure from the Department of Health show that there are around 4000 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning treated in A&E Departments across England each year - even mild cases can exacerbate existing conditions such as respiratory illnesses, leading to fatalities.
A study of more than 27,000 properties by the Liverpool John Moores University, supported by the Merseyside and West Midlands Fire Services, found that less than 10% of homes have a single carbon monoxide alarm to protect occupants from this deadly gas.
Source: Liverpool John Moores University