Families warned of carbon monoxide risk from unswept chimneys

FAMILIES planning to have a festive open fire this Christmas are at risk of Carbon Monoxide poisoning if they haven't had their chimney swept in the past year.

According to research conducted for the Carbon Monoxide - Be Alarmed! campaign, more than half of households in the UK have a chimney, but only one in six (17%) households in the North East get it swept once each year. More than a quarter (26%) of households with a chimney said they'd never had it swept.

Many people only think about their gas boiler as a potential source of Carbon Monoxide. In fact, Carbon Monoxide can be produced by burning wood, oil or coal as well as gas.

Carbon Monoxide poisoning can be fatal or cause lasting health damage. There are around 30 confirmed deaths each year, but this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Recent research found that as many as one person in thirty surveyed believed that they had suffered from Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

The only way to stay safe is by getting appliances and chimneys checked annually and installing an audible Carbon Monoxide alarm.

Bob Russell from the Guild of Master Sweeps said: "At this time of year, we tend to joke about Santa getting stuck in the chimney, but there's a much more serious reason for getting your chimney swept.

"Blockages in the chimney can alter the combustion balance or cause Carbon Monoxide to enter the home instead of being safely vented from the property outside.

"Even if you only use your fire at Christmas you still need to get your chimney swept at least annually to protect yourself from the risk of Carbon Monoxide poisoning."

Top tips to stay safe from the Carbon Monoxide - Be Alarmed! campaign:

If you have an open fire for burning coal, wood, coke or peat, make sure your chimney is swept at least annually. For heavy users or if the fire is your main source of heating then 2 to 3 times a year is best.

Look for signs of chimney damage. These include bulging walls, greasy or soot stains showing on the chimney breast, heavy sooting around the fireplace, soot falling when the fire is burning or smoke coming through walls through damaged brickwork.

If old brickwork is present consider having a metal liner installed to contain smoke and gases from the fire as well as to make the chimney more efficient and effective.

Be alert to the causes of blockages or cracks in chimneys. These include falling old brickwork or mortar, chimney pots damaged due to heavy wind and rain, vegetation creeping into mortar and brickwork and birds' nests falling into the chimney.

Watch out for split, aging or damaged liners. These can allow smoke and gases to leak into the home through the chimney walls.

Never block air bricks and vents that are present in modern homes. These are installed to keep a healthy airflow in modern homes which are otherwise thermostatically sealed due to double glazing and modern building materials.

Most chimneys will have natural air flow or draw, but some also have ground vents added such as for wood burners to provide extra air. Ensure these are not blocked at any time the fire is being used.

Fit an audible alarm, which can be bought from many DIY stores, supermarkets and energy suppliers for around 15. Alarms must never be used in place of annual safety checks. However, they are an important second line of defence.

Make sure you can recognise the symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. These include nausea, dizziness, tiredness, headaches, loss of balance and forgetfulness.

If you suspect a Carbon Monoxide leak, stop using the appliance until it has been checked by a qualified and registered engineer, open windows or doors to ventilate the area, leave the room to get some fresh air and seek medical attention.