Carbon Monoxide danger.

Sad story in the news today of an experienced sailor who died after accidental exposure to carbon monoxide (CO) from a gas stove on board his boat.

CO is colourless and odourless and is produced during the incomplete combustion of organic matter. CO can rapidly accumulate in enclosed or poorly ventilated areas.

Essentially CO has a much higher affinity than oxygen for sticking to the bloods haemaglobin that normally carries oxygen from your lungs to to the tissues and organs.
Unable to access oxygen the body becomes hypoxic, loss of consciousness will follow swiftly, and if exposure continues, death will ensue.

Symptoms of CO poisoning:

  • Headaches
  • Tiredness
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Chest pain

It only takes a few minutes of exposure for symptoms to develop, and confusion together with the commonality of the symptoms make it easy to mistake the situation for ‘gastro’ or early onset of ‘the flu’ and fail to appreciate the critical nature of the situation.


Situations where CO is produced:

  • barbeques that use wood, charcoal or gas
  • fireplaces that use wood, charcoal or gas
  • portable cookers that use gas or kerosene
  • portable and/or outdoor heaters that use gas or kerosene
  • flued gas heaters (under certain conditions)
  • electrical generators that are diesel- or petrol-powered
  • electrical equipment that is diesel- or petrol-powered (such as pumps, chainsaws, blowers and welders).

Carbon Monoxide alarms.

Protecting against Carbon Monoxide poisoning is a simple matter with the instillation of a CO detector. These units are inexpensive and should be fitted in ALL boats, camper vans, caravans and motorhomes along with a smoke detector unit.

And if you already have one installed, don’t forget to regularly check the batteries!

A quick test of Ripley’s CO alarm. Her smoke alarm sits on the opposite side.

Emergency Management:

If you come across a situation where someone has been exposed to CO the first action is to SAFELY remove the source… or remove the person from the source.
Remember CO is colourless and odourless and so you are at risk of exposure yourself whilst providing aid.

For any exposure other than a brief one with mild symptoms, the person is probably going to need medical attention. CO remains in the bloodstream for a considerable time and ongoing treatment with high flow oxygen may be required.

Of course if the person is unconscious they will need immediate life support interventions and urgent paramedic attendance.




  1. Product Safety Australia: Carbon monoxide safety.

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