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Fire brigade issues carbon monoxide alarm warning

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Written by: Emma Lunn
26/01/2021
A third of homes don’t have a carbon monoxide alarm, while a quarter haven’t had their boiler serviced in more than a year.

An investigation by Uswitch found that a lack of carbon monoxide alarms is putting households at greater risk from carbon monoxide poisoning, dubbed the ‘silent killer’.

It found that fire services are being called to 10% more carbon monoxide leaks in homes compared to five years ago, but almost a third (32%) of households don’t have an alarm to detect the deadly gas.

More than 3,000 incidents related to carbon monoxide in people’s homes were attended by firefighters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 12 months, according to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Uswitch to UK fire and rescue services.

Household appliances such as gas fires, boilers, central heating systems, water heaters, and cookers are possible sources of carbon monoxide. The gas is tasteless, odorless and invisible, meaning residents may not know there is a leak unless they have an alarm.

Despite the risk from the ‘silent killer’, a fifth (19%) of those with an alarm say they have never changed the batteries.

London Fire Brigade recorded the highest number of incidents of those that responded to the Freedom of Information request. It saw 2,019 call-outs related to carbon monoxide in 12 months — the equivalent of 58.9 incidents per 100,000 households.

The 27 services that responded attended 3,236 incidents related to carbon monoxide in homes in 2020, compared to 2,954 in 2016, a 9.5% rise.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

A tension headache is the most common symptom of mild carbon monoxide poisoning. Other effects can include dizziness, feeling and being sick, tiredness and confusion, stomach pain and shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

Long-term exposure can cause neurological symptoms, and death.

Of those who have a carbon monoxide detector, a quarter of households (26%) say they would not know what to do if the alarm went off.

Even among the three quarters (74%) who said they would know what action to take, the majority did not mention all the recommended steps, such as turning off appliances, opening doors and windows, getting out of the property, and calling a qualified technician.

Sarah Broomfield, energy expert at Uswitch.com, said: “Carbon monoxide is odorless, invisible, and can cause serious health problems or even be fatal. Without an alarm, families will be unaware there is a problem in their home.

“With households turning their heating up during the cold weather, and a majority working from home, boilers are under more pressure than ever and boilers which have not been serviced for a long time could be at risk of causing serious problems.

“The pandemic has held up a lot of services, but we are urging people to get their boilers checked by a qualified engineer regularly.

“In the meantime, buying a carbon monoxide alarm and regularly checking that the batteries work is a vital way to protect yourself and your family.”

A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: “Many households don’t have CO alarms, whereas around 85% have a smoke alarm so there is a real need to raise awareness of the dangers and the importance of getting an alarm.

“Poisoning symptoms can easily be confused with just feeling unwell, which is why CO poisoning is so dangerous and so often missed.”

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