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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: The Silent Killer

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poisoning-by-carbon-monoxide Bob Scott/Photodisc/Thinkstock

In March 2012, 45-year-old Chris Bainbridge was found dead in his wooden cabin on a campsite, his wife unconscious next to him. The couple had wanted to keep warm and so had brought their barbecue into the cabin and closed the door, shutting off ventilation.

The cause of Mr. Bainbridge’s death was thought to be carbon monoxide poisoning. His death follows that of Hazel Woodhams, 30, and Tracey Screen, 34, who were both killed by barbecue fumes while camping in 2011.

Tragically, this month sees the death of another person, likely due to carbon monoxide, at a campsite. Little six-year-old Isabelle Harris became unwell, started having a seizure and then stopped breathing, while on holiday with her parents in the New Forest, Hampshire, UK.

They attempted to do CPR on the little girl but were unable to help her. Although initially arrested on suspicion of murder, autopsy results later showed a natural cause of death and officials now think Isabelle was poisoned by gas from a barbecue.

Carbon monoxide poisoning takes the lives of around 400 U.S. people a year and a further 50 people a year in the U.K., and results in many more hospitalizations.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odourless gas and occurs with incomplete combustion of natural gas and petroleum gas. Sources of carbon monoxide include:

• Faulty central heating systems

• Gas fires/ gas cookers

• Car exhaust fumes / motorbikes

• Gas fired power generators

• Lawn mowers

• Barbecues

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Symptoms of carbon monoxide include:

• Headache

• Nausea

• Abdominal pain

• Dizziness

• Sore throat and/or cough

• Children may also vomit and have symptoms resembling and upset stomach

• Severe poisoning can result in heart irregularities, confusion, drowsiness, hyperventilation, unconsciousness, seizures and difficulty breathing. Without treatment, death can occur.

This is because when CO accumulates in the blood, the body may take that up instead of oxygen, leading the major organs to be deprived of oxygen and resulting in brain death.

Survivors of carbon monoxide poisoning may be affected by side effects such as memory loss and poor coordination, and these can last for several months after the event.


The first mode of treatment is to take the person away from the source of the gas. The affected person can then be given oxygen and other life supportive measures to counteract the effects of the carbon monoxide.

How Can I Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

• Make sure your home is fitted with carbon monoxide alarms in every room. These will sound if there is a CO gas leak. Every so often, check that they are working and that the batteries haven’t run out.

• Have a gas safety check done annually to make sure your gas appliances are in good working order.

• Check all vents and working chimneys in your home to make sure they aren’t blocked. Don’t cover over any vents, as they are there for your safety.

• Clean any chimneys regularly to prevent blockages.

• If your fridge emits an odor, this could mean the cooling system is faulty. If the cooling system is faulty, it may lead to a build up of CO, so call someone immediately to fix your fridge.

• When buying appliances, make sure you only buy products that have been approved by a national testing agency.

• Never run cars or motorbikes in a closed garage.

• Have your car serviced every year, including checks on the exhaust pipe.

• Never use a generator inside the home. They are meant for outdoor use.

• Never use a barbecue in your home, cabin or tent unless it is contained within a specially-designed vented fireplace. Charcoal burning creates CO and if there isn’t adequate ventilation this can kill you. The same goes for portable camping stoves.

• Remember, carbon monoxide poisoning can also affect you at work. If colleagues also have symptoms, and you feel better after you go home, this could be a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Make sure you mention it to your boss and that he or she has appropriate health and safety procedures in place.


Carbon monoxide poisoning, BBC Health. Web. 11 April 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/physical_health/conditions/carbonmonoxide1.shtml

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, Frequently Asked Questions, CDC. Web. 11 April 2012.

Camping Site Tragedy Girl Gassed By Barbecue, Daily Mail. Web. 11 April 2012.

Man dies after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning on camping trip, The Guardian. Web. 11 April 2012.

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/
She is author of the book, "Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation", and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting.

Reviewed April 11, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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