Safety and first aid

Carbon monoxide safety

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an odourless, colourless gas that can cause sudden illness and death.

What are the sources of carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is produced when any material burns incompletely.

Materials like coal or charcoal used for heating produce high levels of carbon monoxide when burnt in fireplaces or barbeques.

Any appliance that is not well maintained and in good working order emits more carbon monoxide than an appliance that is well maintained and serviced regularly.

Common sources of carbon monoxide in homes include appliances such as:

  • wood, charcoal or gas barbeques and fireplaces
  • wood stoves
  • chemical (catalytic) heaters
  • gas or kerosene cookers and heaters
  • diesel- or petrol-powered devices such as generators, pumps, chainsaws, leaf blowers motor mowers and welders.
  • motor vehicles
  • cigarette smoke.
Why is carbon monoxide dangerous?

Carbon monoxide can build up in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces like rooms, houses, garages are sheds. People and animals in these spaces can be poisoned by breathing it.

Red blood cells pick up carbon monoxide quicker than they pick up oxygen. If there is a lot of carbon monoxide in the air, the body may replace oxygen in blood with carbon monoxide.

This blocks oxygen from getting into the body, which can damage tissues and result in death once enough carbon monoxide is breathed in.

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • chest pain
  • confusion.

High levels can cause loss of consciousness and death.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult to detect because the symptoms can be confused with fatigue, the common cold or the flu but without the fever symptoms. People who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from carbon monoxide poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms.

Can carbon monoxide poisoning be treated?

If you suspect that you are experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the area and get fresh air immediately. Most people recover quickly once in fresh air. However if the symptoms persist even in fresh air then oxygen treatment in hospital may be needed. Do not delay in going to hospital if symptoms persist.

Pregnant women should always go to hospital if carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected. Even if symptoms clear up there is a risk that carbon monoxide may still be in the blood of the foetus. Infants, children, older adults and people with health problems are more severely affected. Most people are able to recover from carbon monoxide poisoning when treated.

How do I protect myself from carbon monoxide poisoning?
  • Never burn charcoal or coal briquettes inside homes, garages and other enclosed spaces.
  • Never operate an unflued gas heater or fireplace in a closed room or in a room in which you are sleeping.
  • Never use a gas stove or oven for heating.
  • Never use a generator inside a house or garage even with doors and windows open.
  • Never leave a car running in a garage even with the garage door open.
  • Never use a patio heater inside.
  • Never use a portable gas stove inside.
  • Always use a flued heater.
  • Always keep your appliances and devices in good working order.
  • Have your chimney cleaned and checked every year.

Remember

  • Carbon monoxide is odourless and colourless but can cause illness or death.
  • People and animals in enclosed spaces can be poisoned by breathing it.
  • Red blood cells pick up carbon monoxide quicker than they pick up oxygen. If there is a lot of carbon monoxide in the air, the body may replace oxygen in blood with carbon monoxide.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult to detect because the symptoms can be confused with fatigue, the common cold or the flu but without the fever symptoms.
  • If you suspect that you are experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the area and get fresh air immediately.

Where to get help

If you suspect you have carbon monoxide poisoning, immediately remove yourself or the affected person from the premises.

If the affected person is unconscious and cannot be moved, turn off the suspected appliance, open doors and windows, remove yourself from the premises and call emergency services on triple zero (000).

  • Immediately ring triple zero (000) if the affected person is unconscious.
  • Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26.
  • See your doctor.
  • Visit a GP after hours.
  • Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.

Acknowledgements

Public Health (Environmental Health)


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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