CO Awareness Week Monday 23rd to Sunday 29th November 2020
This week sees the start of Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week in the UK. Here is a reminder of the dangers of carbon monoxide and why you should be aware of it in confined spaces like a boat.
What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odourless and colourless gas that is produced when carbon-based fuels such as coal, wood, oil, charcoal, kerosene, natural gas and propane aren’t fully burned. When these fuels are burned in the presence of enough oxygen (including atmospheric concentrations), the CO burns with a blue flame and is oxidised to carbon dioxide (CO2). However, in a confined space these oxygen levels can be far lower and this reaction may not occur.
Why is carbon monoxide dangerous?
If we inhale excessive amounts of carbon monoxide we are at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. The carbon monoxide enters our bloodstream through our lungs and here it can have a deadly effect.
Haemoglobin is a protein found in our blood that facilitates the transfer of oxygen around our body. Usually, oxygen diffuses into the blood from our lungs and binds to haemoglobin which is pumped around the body. When the oxygen-carrying haemoglobin reaches an area where it’s needed it unloads the oxygen and then continues back to the lungs to repeat the process.
However, carbon monoxide can also bind to haemoglobin disrupting its ability to carry oxygen, rendering it useless. It will stay attached for over 5 hours before the haemoglobin can be used again.
Symptoms range from mild to deadly depending on the concentration of carbon monoxide, usually measured in ppm (parts per million). Essentially symptoms are the result of oxygen starvation to the body and brain.
35ppm – Headaches and dizziness within 6-8 hours of exposure.
100-400ppm – Headaches and dizziness after a couple of hours.
(Symptoms at these lower concentrations may be similar to food poisoning or the flu).
400-800ppm – Dizziness, nausea and convulsions within 45 minutes.
800-1600ppm – Dizziness, nausea, convulsions, increased heart rate within 20 minutes. Death in 2 hours.
1600+ppm – All the above but much sooner, between 5-20 minutes. Death not long after. At 12,000ppm unconsciousness after only a few breaths and death in minutes.
Where is carbon monoxide produced?
Confined spaces where these fuels are burned are common in our houses and on boats:
- Fires (gas and solid fuel)
- Gas, diesel or kerosene heaters
- Water heaters
- Charcoal grills
- Wood stoves
- Gas cooking stoves
All of these appliances can and will produce carbon monoxide.
What preventative measures can we take?
Appliances like those mentioned above should have adequate ventilation when installed to prevent a dangerous build-up of carbon monoxide, but a problem could occur if these are faulty, become damaged or aren’t installed properly.
Here is a list of things you can do:
- Servicing your gas appliances annually with a gas registered engineer.
- Ensuring your chimneys and flues are clear and checked regularly.
- Installing carbon monoxide alarms. These devices work much like a fire alarm but with CO instead of smoke. They will sound at concentrations between 50-150ppm depending on how long they have been exposed to the CO.
- If you already have CO alarms installed maintain and test them regularly.
- Ensuring enclosed spaces like a cabin are well ventilated.
- Never use BBQs, grills, or charcoal burners inside or in poorly ventilated areas.
- Check burners for a blue flame. If they are yellow or orange it could signify a problem.
- Check there is not yellow/brown staining around appliances/flues.
- The smell of exhaust fumes in the cockpit or down below in the cabins/saloon could indicate all is not well.
- Other signs of a problem are pilot lights that continue to go out and appliances that are difficult to light and will not stay lit.
What if I suspect I have symptoms or my alarm goes off?
- Gather everyone and get outside to fresh air, opening windows, hatches and doors on your way if it is safe to do so.
- Check everyone for symptoms and call the emergency services immediately if anyone shows signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Do not re-enter the building or boat if possible.
- Once deemed safe by the responding services contact a professional to locate and fix the potential sources.
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