Falling over on my way to work was the first sign of carbon monoxide poisoning – although I didn’t know it then. I’d taken my usual route and tripped over a kerb that I walked over every day. I landed on a grass verge, but with my left arm out, like Superman.
Condition: Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning
Symptoms: Two heavy falls
Treatment: Immediate disconnection of gas on discovery of leak, and staying away from the source of CO poisoning until the danger had disappeared. Also, having a new, safe boiler installed.
Recovery: This happened naturally, as the amount of CO in Gill’s system reduced. Some people can have long-term health problems.
Ongoing problems: Gill still has impaired movement in her shoulder from her fall.
I went to A&E and found out that I’d torn my rotator cuff. I couldn’t move my arm for a month and was in quite a lot of pain. Then, three weeks later,
I was on my way to work and fell again, crossing the road. I remember the sound of my chin hitting the pavement. I thought I’d broken my jaw. When I closed my mouth, my teeth didn’t align and my jaw-bone was protruding into my ear, causing pain when I closed my mouth. This time, the doctors told me I’d sprained
the ligaments in my jaw. I also had a black eye, whiplash and a nasty bruise on my chin.
I took about three weeks off work, and spent a lot of that time in bed, trying to recuperate, but I was feeling worse and worse. I was very anxious and depressed, and kept waking up with palpitations.
I decided to cheer myself up by making a cake for one of the many kind friends who’d been looking after me while I was ill. I’d just started mixing the ingredients when there was a knock at the door – it was my neighbour and a man I hadn’t seen before. He said he’d come to turn off my gas supply because it was pumping out CO and had set off my next-door neighbour’s CO alarm. The engineer said that the amount of gas detected was 21 times above the legal limit. It was coming from the flue into the roof space above, then into my bedroom. Because I hadn’t been well, I had spent a lot of time in there, feeling steadily worse, rather than better. Now I knew why.
I was really shocked, because I normally had my boiler serviced every year. But I hadn’t been able to get hold of my regular engineer, so it was a few months overdue. I didn’t have a CO alarm, but the boiler was outside, so I thought that was OK.
I went to our lovely local pharmacist, who checked my CO levels on a stop-smoking device. Even though I’d already spent some time away from the CO source, my levels were 14ppm* – equivalent to me smoking ten cigarettes before going to the pharmacy, and I’m a lifelong non-smoker. I went to see my GP, who sent me to hospital. The doctor I saw there, however, was very unhelpful. He wouldn’t look at the notice from British Gas saying there had been ‘immediate danger to life’ or the pharmacist’s letter.
I explained the symptoms I’d been having – the palpitations, repeatedly leaving behind my keys in shops and the handbrake off my car – mistakes I would never usually make. And there were the two falls to add to that.
Eventually, the doctor acknowledged that ataxia, a loss of co-ordination, is one of the first symptoms that you don’t have enough oxygen in your body, but he’d left it too late to accurately test the amount of CO in my system on arrival at hospital.
Thinking back to the shock of discovering I had CO poisoning, and the levels shown on my pharmacist’s device, I realise I’ll never quite know how badly affected I was. I had a brush with danger, and a lucky escape. I’d only had the heating on for six weeks, and it wasn’t on as much as it would have been later in the year.
The lowdown on carbon monoxide poisoning
loss of consciousness
Some 50 people a year in the UK die from CO poisoning.
The Fire Service says: ‘Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, poisonous gas produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-based fuels, including gas, oil, wood and coal. Carbon-based fuels are usually safe to use. However, when the fuel does not burn properly, excess CO is produced, which is poisonous. When CO enters the body, it prevents the blood from bringing oxygen to cells, tissues, the brain and organs.’
Danger you can’t see or smell
One problem with CO poisoning is that you often don’t know that it’s happening. This is because CO poisoning often affects our mental abilities before we realise that anything is wrong.
To find out more about CO poisoning, go to co-bealarmed.co.uk. This campaign is run by Energy UK on behalf of some of the major energy companies, in partnership with the Dominic Rodgers Trust (set up to help save lives following Dominic’s death at the age of ten from CO poisoning). It is also supported by a range of charities and other organisations.
Better safe than worry
Purchasing a CO detector is as vital as fitting a smoke alarm in your home. The Fire Service advises that it complies with British Standard 50292. Visit fireservice.co.uk for details.
Need to know
If you think someone has carbon monoxide poisoning, call 999 straightaway, and get anyone who has been affected away from the source of CO as quickly as possible. This may not always be possible, especially if the person is too heavy for you to move.
If you can’t move the person who has been affected, open all the doors and windows to help clear the gas from the room or building. Only attempt this if you can do it without being affected by CO yourself. Do not put yourself at risk.