Carbon Monoxide Ireland: What you should know

A cross section of a room with an alarm going off and a smoky substance in the air

What is carbon monoxide and why do we care so much about it that we wrote an entire article on it?  We’ll tell you what it is - it’s a colourless odourless menace that has caused many deaths worldwide, a large amount of which were completely preventable.

On average 6 people die in Ireland every year from unintentional CO (carbon monoxide) poisoning in their homes, usually caused by faults with installed central heating systems in their homes. This is why it’s so important to have your boiler serviced regularly, and to have a carbon monoxide detector installed.

Carbon Monoxide has no smell, taste or colour, and as such has come to be known as the “silent killer”. Every year in Ireland, there is a Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week to promote awareness of this silent killer to the general public. 


Where does carbon monoxide come from?

Normally, combusting fossil fuels will produce carbon dioxide (CO2, which we normally excrete when we breathe out). Any fossil fuel can release carbon, including those used frequently in Irish homes such as coal, gas, oil, turf and wood.

If there is a lack of oxygen during the combustion process of fossil fuel, then carbon monoxide may be formed instead of carbon dioxide. Items and processes in the home which may produce carbon monoxide include:

  • Appliances such as boilers, gas-fired heaters or stoves, space heaters.
  • Generators
  • Lawnmowers, chain saws, and pressure washers that are fuel-powered.
  • Cars and vehicles.
  • Fires (in fireplaces)

To avoid CO poisoning from appliances, they should be well-maintained and kept in good working order. Generators and fuel-powered outside appliances such as lawn-mowers should never be turned on inside the house (this includes inside a closed garage).

Vehicles produce carbon monoxide when they are running, so never leave a vehicle idling inside a covered space, e.g. a garage. CO can also be released into the car interior if the exhaust pipe becomes blocked, so make sure to check that the exhaust pipe is clear if you’ve been driving in muddy conditions or through snow.

Fireplaces, chimneys and flues should be cleaned and checked every year.

Working with solvents, such as paint removers, which contain methylene chloride, can also put you at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning as the methylene chloride is metabolized into carbon monoxide if inhaled. Such solvents should only be used in very well-ventilated areas, or outdoors.


How does carbon monoxide affect your body?

When Carbon monoxide is inhaled, it combines with a person’s blood to replace oxygen. Too much exposure to high levels of CO can lead to serious illness or even death. The oxygen starvation caused to your brain by carbon monoxide may even cause irreversible brain damage.


Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms

A yellow and black caution sign

If like the majority of Irish households, you use fossil fuels in your household, then it is of vital importance that you know how to recognize the early signs of carbon monoxide exposure. If you ignore the early signals, chances are you may pass out and therefore be unable to remove yourself from the danger area.

When in an enclosed area containing anything that might possibly produce carbon monoxide, keep an eye out for the sudden onset of these symptoms, experienced by yourself or other household members:

  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Dull headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness

Many of these symptoms are subtle or not easily attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning, which is why it is also important to have a carbon monoxide alarm installed in your home. However, you should still be aware of possible symptoms in the unlikely eventuality that the alarm malfunctions.

If you think you or anyone you are with may be experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, exit the danger area immediately to an area with fresh air, preferably outside, and get emergency medical care.

Note that carbon monoxide poisoning is not only immediately dangerous to you and those around you, but exposure to it over time has also been linked to a higher risk of heart disease due to damage caused to your heart.

If you survive CO poisoning, you may still be at risk for serious long-term health problems.


How do you treat carbon monoxide poisoning?

If you’re unfortunate enough to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning (but fortunate enough to have survived the experience), you may be brought to casualty or head there of your own volition. Make no mistake, carbon monoxide poisoning is a medical emergency, so do not be afraid to call in the calvary.

In order to confirm the suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, your attending doctor will usually quickly carry out a simple blood test.

Treatment at home for suspected carbon monoxide poisoning should involve making your way to fresh air as soon as possible, and/or calling 999 or 112.

Treatment at the hospital should include breathing pure oxygen through a mask. If your condition has deteriorated enough that you cannot breathe on your own without assistance, then you may be connected to a ventilator.

Frequently hyperbaric oxygen therapy is undertaken when carbon monoxide poisoning is moderate to severe. The higher air pressure of the hyperbaric chamber speeds up the replacement of carbon monoxide with oxygen in your blood.


How long does it take to recover from carbon monoxide poisoning?

It can take from four to six hours to excrete just half of the inhaled carbon monoxide in your system, and anything from a few days to six weeks to fully expel the rest and accurately assess the damage. This is because neurological damage can take much longer to present.

Sobering statistics indeed. 


Carbon monoxide alarms

Carbon monoxide detectors are cheap and easy to install in your home, and the peace of mind they bring is invaluable. Alarms can be battery-operated or have a backup battery. Whichever type you have, you should replace the battery every time the clock changes, i.e. in spring and autumn, and make sure to test it regularly.

You can purchase an alarm online from Amazon, or at any DIY or hardware store. In Ireland, alarms should:

  • Carry a CE mark
  • Carry an independent certification mark such as a kitemark
  • Comply with EN 50291 European safety standard
  • Have an “end of life” indicator

Be aware that colour-changing indicators are not considered useful as they will not wake you up int the event of a carbon monoxide build-up.

Suitable carbon monoxide alarms can cost from €15 - €40, although you also have the option of buying a smart dual smoke and carbon monoxide detector from Nest for around €90.

Where should you install carbon monoxide alarms?

You are most at risk from carbon monoxide while asleep, as you may not notice the symptoms which would normally alert you to the fact that something is wrong. Therefore it makes sense to place your carbon monoxide alarm somewhere it will wake you up if you are sleeping.

While placing an alarm near your bedroom is helpful for the reasons we outlined above, you may need several more alarms to take care of safety during the daytime when people are awake and in different areas of the house. The kitchen and living room tend to be safe bets to place detectors, but realistically any room where there is a potential source of carbon monoxide should have one. 

What should you do if your carbon monoxide detector goes off?

An orange tick in front of a Blue box outline

If you and your loved ones are not showing any symptoms, open all the doors and windows in the house, turn off anything fossil-fuel-based which could be a source of carbon monoxide, and exit the house.

If anyone is showing symptoms, exit the house immediately. Do not reenter your house until you have been told it is safe to do so.

Call emergency services and let them know your condition, the condition of those around you, and any other information you may have. They will then send someone to assess you and your house.

Why is my carbon monoxide alarm beeping?

If your carbon monoxide alarm is constantly beeping (every 30-40 seconds), and not actually “going off”, then it may be as a result of:

  1. End of Life has been reached (time to change your alarm)
  2. Low battery (replace the battery)
  3. Malfunction (reset the unit, and if that doesn’t work replace it)

You should have previously tested your alarm and be able to tell the difference between this beeping and the actual alarm going off. Do not ignore a beeping carbon monoxide detector. Apart from being an extremely irritating sound, the detector will not respond to carbon monoxide in this condition.

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