Western Cape Poisons Centre advisory: Protect yourself against carbon monoxide
Western Cape Poisons Centre advisory: Protect yourself against carbon monoxide poisoning or exposure
During winter, the Poisons Information Helpline of the Western Cape (PIHWC) receives more calls from the public concerning poisoning or exposure to carbon monoxide, a highly toxic colourless and odourless gas, that can harm an individual who inhales too much of it. Residents are reminded to be aware of the hazards posed by this “silent killer” which can affect any individual, especially young children.
In one of the latest incidents, two adults died from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in Mitchells Plain on 30 July 2023. According to records from the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services [access media release here], the family had taken a drum of hot coals indoors and were overcome by the lack of oxygen. As this incident shows, alternative heating sources may be effective at providing warmth, but they can also pose great risks if not used properly.
Since the launch of the PIHWC in 2015, we have received over 100 calls concerning carbon monoxide poisoning, mainly from May to August each year. About one third of these patients had pronounced symptoms, about 10% had severe symptoms, and we have recorded one death.
We emphasise that carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious medical emergency and prompt action is crucial for a positive outcome. Taking preventive measures can help keep us all safe.
What produces carbon monoxide?
- Burning coal, paraffin, wood, LPG or diesel
- Faulty chimneys, furnaces.
- Faulty LPG gas appliances (flame burning yellow instead of blue).
- Exhaust fumes from generators or vehicles.
What does it do?
- Carbon monoxide prevents enough oxygen from being carried around the body.
- It causes people to have a headache and feel nauseous, dizzy, lightheaded, and confused.
- More severe poisoning causes coma, seizures, heart rhythm disturbances, and even death.
- The severity depends on the concentration of carbon monoxide in a room and for how long a person is exposed.
- Long-term effects can occur and are mostly related to mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety, confusion, and generalised brain fog.
If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, take the following actions:
- Immediately leave the area and get fresh air.
- Call emergency services or the Poisons Information Helpline for advice.
- Seek medical attention promptly, especially if you or someone else is experiencing severe symptoms.
How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:
- Ventilate! Open windows or keep door ajar when using fuels to cook or heat inside
- Do not bring braziers with burning coals inside.
- Turn off all heat sources before going to sleep.
- Do not use an LPG gas oven/stove to heat inside.
- If you have a fire with a chimney, make sure it is open and regularly cleaned.
- Make sure all LPG gas appliances are in working order.
- Do not leave the car running in the garage even if the door is open. Rather drive the car out into the street to let the engine warm up.
- Install carbon monoxide (CO) detectors.
The Poisons Information Helpline is a 24-hour service for the public and health care workers, provided by the staff of the Poisons Information Centres at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and Tygerberg Hospital. The service provides help with poisonings caused by unidentified toxins and advice on managing poisoning by identified substances. The Western Cape Department of Health and Wellness remains committed to strengthening the prevention, diagnosis, and management of poisoning in both adults and children in the province and throughout South Africa.
In case of a poison emergency, call the PIHWC on 0861 555 777.