Sitting by the fire to keep warm could have deadly consequences, a leading health campaigner has warned. Blocked flues and badly ventilated homes often result in households being poisoned by carbon monoxide (CO), says mum-of-four Lynn Griffiths. Lynn, who founded the charity Carbon Monoxide Awareness after she and her family developed severe health problems after being exposed to toxic fumes, said: "During cold weather we all turn on the heating. But as well as warming up, you could be exposing everyone in the house to deadly carbon monoxide at the same time."
Early winter is especially dangerous as fires or boilers that have not been used in months are suddenly pressed into action. Chimneys or flues could have been blocked during the summer and autumn by debris, or even nesting birds. Plants may have grown and covered wall vents. Exactly these sorts of events have caused lethal tragedies in the past.
Lynn goes on to say: "People who know nothing about carbon monoxide poisoning often cover air bricks to prevent draughts, but they're unaware they are also blocking ventilation vital to avoid poisoning. I believe my family only survived their exposure to carbon monoxide because I was asthmatic. I used to keep a small window open day and night throughout the year to allow fresh air into the house. This fresh air saved our lives. There is so much emphasis on keeping warm over winter - especially for older people. They are actively encouraged to stop any draughts. But I truly believe that carbon monoxide is far more of a health risk than hypothermia."
The seven-point checklist is designed to minimise the risks of poisoning:
- Get any fuel-burning appliances serviced regularly by a properly qualified engineer
- Install a carbon monoxide alarm - one with an audible alarm
- Sweep chimneys and flues every year if you use solid fuel
- If you rent your accommodation, ask your landlord for an up-to-date gas safety record
- Keep flues, air vents and grilles clear and ensure rooms are well ventilated
- If you are entitled to a free gas safety check from your gas supplier, take it up
- Don't ignore symptoms.
Lynn added: "My children and I were constantly being told by our GP to keep warm by staying by the fire. All the while we were being poisoned by carbon monoxide. This is the reason why I want to warn people.
"I want to see families talking about carbon monoxide to each other. I want them to think about their neighbours' health, and keep an eye on the old person next door."
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea and dizziness, feeling tired and confused, and sometimes difficulty in breathing. If you think you are suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, turn off your appliances, ventilate your home and contact your GP or A&E department immediately. There is a simple test which can check for the presence of carbon monoxide in the blood. But it is important to realise that measurable levels fall quite quickly when you are breathing fresh air, so a low reading hours after exposure to carbon monoxide does not rule the danger out completely. If there is any question about exposure to carbon monoxide, have your appliances checked by a properly registered engineer before using them again.
Dr Ed Walker is medical advisor to Carbon Monoxide Awareness. He said: "The results of carbon monoxide exposure are devastating, even if you are fortunate enough to survive. Perhaps even more tragic is that it is so easy to avoid by taking a few very simple steps. But worst of all for me are those cases that have sought medical advice, but given such bad and wrong advice that they are sent home to die. That's inexcusable."
There is also vital information for doctors available on-line. At the moment this is at http://co-info.blogspot.com.