You’ve probably already noticed that it’s Gas Safety Week. Organised by the Gas Safe Register, it runs for a week from the 16th to the 22nd of September.
Gas Safety Week aims to bring UK organisations together to better coordinate their work in raising the public’s awareness of the dangers posed by poorly maintained gas appliances and fixtures.
And while we might all exercise a little common-sense in order to prevent fires and explosions, the whole subject is a little bit more involved than that…
The problem of carbon monoxide
While gas explosions draw a huge amount of media attention, the real threat is more likely to be carbon monoxide. A colourless, odourless and tasteless gas, carbon monoxide (or CO as it is also known) is formed as the result of incomplete combustion; while complete combustion of carbon-based products forms carbon dioxide, which is a fairly benign gas, a lack of oxygen while burning gas, oil, coal or wood can result in the formation of carbon monoxide instead, which is deadly: carbon monoxide poisoning kills around 60 people in the UK every year.
Carbon monoxide kills by binding to the haemoglobin in your blood, where it forms carboxyhaemoglobin. This is a problem because haemoglobin is the part of your red blood cells that carry oxygen, and when they form carboxyhaemoglobin they can no longer carry oxygen, which causes the cells and tissue in your body to fail and die.
Is it a common problem?
Yes, it is. Poorly installed and badly neglected gas and oil appliances form the greatest risk, as Nick Gurney, a Swale Heating engineer from Kent, can attest: 'I recently went to a flat in Kent where the whole family could have been killed by the botched DIY job on their boiler flue. Condensation was dripping from the flue, and so someone had put mastic (a type of resin) around the joint. Unfortunately, the flue seal itself had perished and that meant carbon monoxide, or CO for short, could have leaked into the flat whenever the boiler was on.'
Cookers and other gas-burning appliances can be a risk, too. Nathan Evans, a Melin gas engineer from Monmouthshire, stopped a carbon monoxide leak from a faulty grill on a cooker: 'I was in the process of the annual gas service appointment at a customer’s home when I spotted that the grill on her cooker was faulty and leaking carbon monoxide. Luckily the customer and her partner rarely used the grill, but mentioned that occasionally the carbon monoxide sensor went off when they grilled bacon. I checked the grill and immediately condemned the cooker. Thankfully the customer kept to her appointment as any delay in letting us carry out the annual gas service could have had serious consequences.'
More about carbon monoxide: the silent killer
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
The NHS says that a tension-type headache is the most common symptom of mild carbon monoxide poisoning, but goes on to warn that the following signs might also manifest themselves:.
• Feeling and being sick
• Tiredness and confusion
• Stomach pain
• Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
It warns that while the symptoms of low-level exposure to carbon monoxide can be similar to those of the ‘flu, carbon monoxide poisoning does not cause a high temperature. This might be a good way of helping you differentiate between the two.
The medics warn that the symptoms will get worse with prolonged exposure, and will reduce when you're away from the source of the problem by, perhaps, going outside to get fresh air.
Carbon monoxide poisoning will cause you to lose balance, vision and memory if you are awake. If the exposure continues then you will eventually lose consciousness and could die. Of course, if you are exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide when you are asleep then you might never wake up…
And, even if it doesn’t kill you immediately, then long-term exposure to even low levels of carbon monoxide can also lead to neurological symptoms such as difficulty thinking or concentrating, frequent emotional changes, and a tendency to make impulsive or irrational decisions.
What action should I take if I suspect carbon monoxide poisoning?
If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning then you should:
• Stop using the appliance immediately.
• Open some windows and the door to the room.
• Evacuate the house and move into the open air.
• Call the gas emergency number on 0800 111 999 to report the incident, or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Gas Safety Advice Line on 0800 300 363
• Seek medical help. Fresh air may not be enough to reverse the damage that has been caused.
• Do not go back into the house until you have been given the all-clear.
My health story: carbon monoxide poisoning
What can I do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?
• Only use a Gas Safe registered engineer to fit, fix and service your appliances. You can find and check an engineer at gassaferegister.co.uk or call 0800 408 5500.
• Have all your gas appliances regularly serviced and safety checked every year. If you rent your home ask for a copy of the landlord’s current Gas Safety Record.
• Know the six main signs of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning – headaches, dizziness, breathlessness, nausea, collapse and loss of consciousness.
• Check gas appliances for warning signs that they are not working properly e.g. lazy yellow flames instead of crisp blue ones, black marks or stains on or around the appliance, and too much condensation in the room.
• Fit an audible carbon monoxide alarm. This will alert you if there is carbon monoxide in your home, no matter where you are and whether you are asleep or awake. Never use a colour-changing stick-on alert as these are very easy to miss.
• Pack a mobile carbon monoxide alarm. Carbon monoxide poisoning can also happen outside of the home. Pack a mobile alarm in your luggage to keep you and your family safe whilst travelling.
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It’s not just appliances
Please remember that it isn’t just gas and oil-burning appliances that can place you at risk; open fires can be a source of carbon monoxide too, which is why it is important to keep all flues and vents clear and open, and to have your chimney swept on a regular basis.
If you are unsure how often you need to have your chimney or flue swept then your best course of action is to have the job done and have a chat with your chimney sweep about it. They will then be able to advise you on how frequently the job needs doing depending on how often you have a fire, and what fuel you burn.
Gas safety: who qualifies for free checks?
Caravans, mobile homes and boats
The same advice goes for boats, mobile homes and caravans that use carbon-based fuel to for heating and cooking in them.
Never use your gas cooker to heat your boat or caravan, and have any dedicated heating appliances checked and serviced regularly, which usually means once a year. Only ever use qualified engineers to do the work.
And always leave a vent or window open when you are cooking inside or using your gas, petrol or diesel heater to ensure there is enough oxygen available to guarantee complete combustion.
What about the risk of gas fires and explosions?
The risk posed by a gas fire or explosion will be significantly reduced if you have your gas appliances serviced regularly by a Gas Safe registered engineer.
However, if you notice that there is any damage to the appliance or the feed pipe, or smell gas, then you should:
• Stop using the appliance immediately.
• Shut off the gas supply to it if you can and it is safe to do so.
• Extinguish any naked flames. Do not smoke.
• Do not use any electrical appliances, including light switches, as a spark from them could ignite the gas.
• Open the windows and doors.
• Move outside the house.
• Call the gas emergency number on 0800 111 999 to report the incident, or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Gas Safety Advice Line on 0800 300 363.
• Do not go back inside the house, or use the appliance again, until you have been given the all clear and told that it is safe to do so.