Carbon monoxide - invisible danger when heating with wood

Wood fuel is becoming increasingly popular during the energy crisis. It is used in pellet heating systems as well as in classic fireplaces. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when using fireplaces. If they are not operated properly, there is a risk that the poisonous gas carbon monoxide will accumulate in the living space. "Carbon monoxide is the cause of several thousand cases of poisoning in Germany each year, including several hundred deaths," says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). "This is why heating systems, fireplaces and gas boilers must be checked regularly. Installing carbon monoxide detectors can help prevent accidents."

Many consumers do not know about the dangers of carbon monoxide. It is a colourless, odourless gas that accumulates rapidly in closed rooms and is not indicated by smoke detectors. Carbon monoxide is produced during the chemically incomplete combustion of organic materials such as wood, coal, heating oil or natural gas. Heating systems, fireplaces and gas boilers can be a source of carbon monoxide poisoning if they are incorrectly installed or insufficiently maintained. Dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide can also be released from stored wood pellets. Furthermore, the BfR repeatedly receives reports of carbon monoxide poisoning from appliances that are only intended for outdoor use but are used indoors or in poorly ventilated areas. These include emergency power generators, gas-powered heating units and charcoal barbecues and gas barbecues.

Smoke detectors have been installed in many households in Germany in recent years for detecting fires at an early stage. However, if carbon monoxide is released into a home while heating without smoke being released, the smoke detector will not trigger alarm. An additional warning device must be acquired and installed in homes with fireplaces to detect too much carbon monoxide in the air.

In cases of suspected technical defects to heating systems (e.g. chimneys with poor ventilation), the chimney sweep must be informed and, in the case of rented homes, the landlord.

Carbon monoxide prevents binding of oxygen to the red blood pigment haemoglobin. As a result, the blood can no longer transport the vital oxygen. This leads to oxygen deficiency in the tissue. In mild to moderate cases of poisoning, symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath. Symptoms of moderate to severe cases of poisoning are epileptic seizures, a reduced state of consciousness up to a deep coma, cardiac arrhythmia and blood pressure fluctuations. In severe cases, death occurs due to respiratory paralysis or heart failure. Poisoning can cause lasting damage to the brain.

The emergency services must be alerted immediately in the event of severe poisoning. In the event of mild symptoms and in unclear cases, the BfR recommends contacting a poison centre first.

Overview of all of the federal states' poison information centres in Germany:

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL). It advises the Federal Government and the federal states ("Länder") on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts independent research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.

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