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Carbon monoxide poisoning: the silent killer

Lynn Griffiths
Director
CO-Awareness

CO-Awareness is a charity that was established in 2005 by Lynn Griffiths, whose own experience began over 20 years ago after her entire family was poisoned by carbon monoxide. It has now evolved into a fully registered charity with its own board of trustees and recently staged its annual CO-Awareness

The mission of CO-Awareness – to provide information on the dangers of CO poisoning and to support victims and their families who have been killed or are suffering long-term health effects of the problem – remains true to Lynn's initial objective.
Known as the "silent killer", CO can be produced by a number of combustion products not burning correctly, including coal, wood or oil, as well as the more widely recognised gas. It has no taste, colour or odour, but can, depending on the levels inhaled, cause permanent damage to your major organs and even kill
within minutes.

CO-Awareness Week was recently staged for the third successive year and involved an ambitious and rigorous schedule of presentations in all four UK capitals that started in the House of Lords and climaxed in Liverpool Town Hall, via daily events in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

While this week-long roadshow covered a wide range of CO-related topics and included various presentations from government ministers, councillors, industry experts and medical professionals, the most impactful contributions continued to come from those most directly affected by poisoning events: families talking about a loved one suddenly lost to CO poisoning or victims themselves left with a long list of medical problems, including permanent organ or brain damage, or confined to a wheelchair.

It was specifically for these people that two of the main themes of the recent event were increased recognition of the symptoms and improved medical care for the victims, as the charity sought to highlight some of the fundamental shortcomings in current
medical practice.

Lynn Griffiths commented: "Carbon monoxide is the most common poison in the UK today; yet there is still no medical support for those poisoned by this chemical and it is still not even routinely tested for at post mortems. We need to make sure all doctors and nurses, especially those working in emergency departments and GP surgeries, are aware of, and can quickly and accurately diagnose, the symptoms that carbon monoxide can cause."

As CO-Awareness becomes increasingly concerned about the growing number of victims who are now developing similar, if not identical illnesses, from their exposure to products of combustion such as carbon monoxide, the commissioning of a feasibility study by the Policy Research Programme of the Department of Health comes as a timely announcement.
This study, headed up by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, in collaboration with the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, will be the first of its kind to examine in any great detail the long-term health issues and unexpected symptoms and effects of CO poisoning.

Initially being carried out in Scotland, the study will trace people who have been discharged from Scottish hospitals after a primary diagnosis of accidental CO poisoning. It will then survey them on their own experience, the severity of their condition and how their current health remains affected and may suggest possible therapeutic interventions or treatments.

The study medical director is Dr John Ross, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Aberdeen and honorary consultant at the NHS Grampian Hyperbaric Medicine Unit. He said: "We know that the effects of CO poisoning can manifest themselves not just as physical injuries but as long-term psychological damage. Sometimes, the medical profession fails to recognise this aspect, and our study will try to uncover all the ways in which victims express their symptoms."

The effects of CO poisoning over time may be subtle or very severe, depending on the extent of the poisoning. Sometimes, the symptoms decline but the long-term effects of low-level exposure are still largely unknown so it can often be difficult to ascertain how this will continue to affect a person's life. There also seems to be no consistent treatment or aftercare made available to those poisoned, something that CO-Awareness doggedly continues to campaign for.

"It is vital that the entire medical profession, from the primary care trusts, through paramedics, A&E staff, doctors and nurses down to the social services, takes responsibility for ensuring the public's safety against exposure to CO in order to avoid serious problems or death," says Lynn.

"This starts with the correct identification of the symptoms, such as amnesia, headaches, memory loss, personality and behavioural changes, impairment of coordination and vision, many of which can be easily misdiagnosed as flu, food poisoning or even a simple virus."

One of the intentions of CO-Awareness over the coming months is to try to pull together a group of medical practitioners across a range of disciplines, to pool their expertise and influence into increasing awareness and providing ongoing help and support to victims. Any nurses interested in getting involved in this group should contact Lynn Griffiths through the CO-Awareness charity or on 07715 899296.

CO-Awareness is a registered charity that provides information on the dangers of CO poisoning and supports victims and their families who have been killed by or are suffering the long-term health effects of the problem. For details visit: www.co-awareness.org

Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

"We know and work with Lynn Griffiths and applaud her work. The real problem as we see it is that:
1. Most people including medics are unaware of the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) so how can they protect themselves and how can medics test for something most people are unaware of?
2. There is no free test of appliances for CO. CO quickly dissipates in a live body so there are dangers of false negatives.
CO-Gas Safety is an independent registered charity launched at the House of Commons in 1995. Quickly we realised that there is need for greater awareness and a free test of appliances to see where CO might be coming from. Please note that an investigation costs at least £1,800. In 2000 the Health and Safety Commission recommended:

  • A levy on the gas suppliers to pay for raising awareness and for research.
  • That the Gas Emergency Service which has a duty to 'make safe' from CO, carries and uses equipment to test for CO.

The government has failed to implement these excellent recommendations. We are so sick of the lack of action except by victims such as Lynn that we launched a schools poster competition to raise awareness. It's for ages 10-11 and 16-17 and we held a first prize giving at the House of Commons on 20th January 2009. Closing date for our new competition is 31.07.09.
Please make sure anyone with children enters or gives a talk to a school. A supeerb Power Point Prsentation is downloadable from our website. Do visit: www.co-gassafety.co.uk/competition.html and please spread the word. There are good prizes to be won plus a day out at the House of Commons. Please do email me if you have any queries (office@co-gassafety.co.uk)" - Stephanie Trotter