Could carbon monoxide be killing you?

For most of us, our biggest concern when it comes to our gas home heating systems is whether or not they are working efficiently – especially now that winter is officially upon us! If you have had your gas home heating system serviced recently, you might have noticed the technician carrying out a carbon monoxide test in addition to any maintenance and repairs. And you might not have known this before, but that simple carbon monoxide test could be the difference between life and death for you and your family.

What is carbon monoxide?

Often referred to as a silent killer, carbon monoxide is an odourless, colourless, non-irritant gas that is one of the under detected causes of fatal poisoning here in Australia, and indeed in countries like Britain and the USA. It is produced by the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels such as gas, oil and wood. This means that gas stoves, gas powered water heaters, and gas home heating systems are all potential sources of carbon monoxide.

The problem occurs when the waste products of combustion are not effectively removed, due to blockage for example. This causes the poisonous gas mixture to re-enter your home, which in substantial amounts could cause dangerous or even lethal harm to the occupants within.

This is also why you should always ensure that your gas appliances are not housed in confined and poorly ventilated areas, and are well maintained and regularly serviced. In fact, Energy Safe Victoria recommends that all gas heaters be serviced and tested for carbon monoxide at least every two years by a licensed heating expert, plumber or gas fitter.

beware carbon monoxide

How come I’ve never heard of it?

Actually, you probably have. One of the reasons carbon monoxide poisoning is so under detected is because there is generally not a lot of awareness about it, but it does come up in the news once in a while. For example, here’s a news item on how carbon monoxide poisoning is believed to have been responsible for the tragic death of a young Sydney couple as they holidayed in the Blue Mountains.

The second reason carbon monoxide poisoning is so under detected is because the signs and symptoms associated with it are often confused for something else. These include headache, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, and poor coordination. Most people who experience these symptoms recover quickly when they move into fresh air. If they don’t get fresh air, however, a mild case could develop into moderate or even severe carbon monoxide poisoning, which could cause confusion, unconsciousness, chest pain, shortness of breath, and coma. While children, pregnant women, babies, and individuals with a heart condition are those at most risk from carbon monoxide poisoning, the fact is it can affect anyone, and severe carbon monoxide poisoning is often fatal.

How do I know whether my home appliances are gas powered?

Finding out which of your home appliances are gas powered, and therefore potential sources of carbon monoxide, is the obvious first step to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning.

Gas stoves are easy to tell from electric ones – the former gives out a flame while the latter doesn’t. To check whether your water heater is gas powered, simply remove the access panel on the front of side of the water heater and look inside for a blue flame. This blue flame is called a pilot light, and indicates the presence of natural gas. Electrical water heaters do not have pilot lights.

Here in Australia, ducted home heating systems generally run on gas, although they may be controlled by electronic ignition instead of the traditional pilot light. If you are uncertain, check your heating unit’s model specifications.

You should also be aware of the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, particularly the following tell-tale clues:

  • More than one family member is affected by the symptoms. There have been cases where a family thought they were all suffering from “food poisoning”, only to discover that their symptoms were due to carbon monoxide exposure.
  • Symptoms occur repeatedly, and they only appear or get worse when gas appliances are in use. Alternatively, look out for those symptoms that improve when family members leave the home, but reappear when they return.
  • Black soot marks on gas fire burners or on walls near gas stoves and gas heaters.
  • A yellow gas flame colour coming out of your gas appliances where it should actually be a blue flame.

What can I do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?

By reading this article, you have already taken one of the steps to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning from happening to you and your family. Lack of awareness is a major issue when it comes to carbon monoxide poisoning, so it is important to get the word out.

As a homeowner, here are some of the other things you can do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from happening to you and your family:

  • Get your gas appliances professionally installed and make sure that they are well maintained and regularly serviced.
  • Ensure that your home is well ventilated, particularly where there are gas appliances.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning to watch out for.
  • Install a battery powered carbon monoxide alarm in your home. These are very affordable and worth the price for peace of mind and the safety of your family.

get a carbon monoxide alarm

If you suspect that you or someone you know is experiencing the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the area immediately and get some fresh air. If possible, turn off any gas appliances in the house, and leave the doors and windows open. Contact 000 or go to a hospital, and call your heating expert or gas company. Remember that you cannot smell carbon monoxide due to it being odourless, so in instances where you suspect that something is wrong, it is always better to err on the side of caution.

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