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The devastating long-term effects of carbon monoxide

Although the UK has seen more positive moves to tackle the issue of carbon monoxide poisoning, there is little understanding of the long-term effects on those who have been affected, says Lynn Griffiths

There has been growing attention to the issue of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in recent years as a result of a number of initiatives, including educational exercises and new legislation.

As a result, more people are aware that CO is produced by any fossil-fuel burning appliance, ranging from gas boilers and log burners to barbecues.

An increasing number of calls for the fitting of CO alarms in all properties has also achieved positive results, although the industry feels there is further work to do in this area.

Despite the many instances of increased discussion, however, an important area that has remained largely overlooked is the long-term effect of CO poisoning – but this is something that Lynn Griffiths is determined to change.

Having been exposed to CO poisoning for a prolonged period between 1988 and 1999, Ms Griffiths and her family have reported the effects they continue to suffer from and deal with on a daily basis. She founded the Carbon Monoxide Awareness charity and launched Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week in 2005, which this year runs from 16 to 22 November.

There is an urgent need for medical examinations to be conducted for all those who have suffered CO poisoning, says Ms Griffiths, who describes the current lack of support as “unbelievable”. She speaks from personal experience, of course, and describes the debilitating effect CO poisoning has had on her family.

Range of symptoms

Their problems arose from a faulty gas flue within the new home the family – including Ms Griffiths, her husband and their two sons aged 18 months and three years respectively – moved into in 1988. The gas fire was regularly serviced, but it was later discovered that the flue had been blocked with builder’s rubble.

Ms Griffiths became pregnant again the same year and began to experience difficulties, with medical tests conducted when it was thought she had miscarried. No checks were made for CO poisoning and Ms Griffiths’ consultant continued to express concern over the baby’s lack of growth.

She gave birth to her daughter two months prematurely and when the baby was released from hospital, her cot was placed near the gas fire. Ms Griffiths says that all the family continued to experience health problems over the winter, which was always attributed to viruses by their doctor.

Her second son started school, but teachers reported that he found it difficult to concentrate and could frequently be found “wandering aimlessly around the classroom”.

Following a letter from his teacher to their family doctor, an examination was carried out and his symptoms were diagnosed as behavioural problems. Ms Griffiths believes her son is not the only child to have received such a diagnosis while suffering from CO poisoning.

When Ms Griffiths became pregnant again in 1995 with her youngest son, this resulted in more concern over his lack of growth. She says that a scan displayed calcifications similar to those found in his sister previously, but still no tests for CO poisoning were conducted.

“He was poisoned by CO before he was even born,” says Ms Griffiths.

Following the birth, he was diagnosed with a blocked main artery and rushed into intensive care and – although the operation was successful – health issues persisted after he was allowed home.

Finding the fault

The fault was finally detected when the family purchased a new fire and a service engineer from the manufacturer visited the house when a safety device kept being activated and turning it off. He found that although the fire itself was in good working order, high levels of CO were being emitted and disconnected the appliance.

The fault was eventually identified and the rubble removed, but that same year Ms Griffiths’ husband died from lung cancer. She continues to question whether or not this was caused by his long exposure to CO.

Her youngest son has continued to suffer from serious health problems, including issues with his heart and both physical and mental development, including loss of memory. Ms Griffiths says that none of these conditions had been seen in her or her husband’s family previously and attributes all of them to the effect of being exposed to CO during his early development.

He had his first brain scan at the age of seven and recently underwent more neurological testing at 18, including MRI, PET and EEG scans, with the subsequent report outlining the damage caused by CO poisoning. The neurological consultant has now stated that further tests should be conducted next year.

“Being poisoned by CO is a living nightmare for both adults and children. The nightmare can and does last for decades, as I know first hand only too well,” says Ms Griffiths.

“Unless you are a victim of CO yourself, the chances are you won’t understand the frustration or pressure this silent killer can have on family life. Every day is a battle to find answers or get the medical support your family and children so desperately need.”

Education is key

In addition to raising awareness of CO poisoning within the medical community, including the need for more checks, Ms Griffiths believes that this should be extended to the education sector. She points out that the majority of teachers will not be aware of the effect that exposure to CO can have on the brain.

“Teachers will probably think a child has been up most of the night playing computer games and this is why that child finds it difficult to concentrate, so the child is labelled as having ‘behaviour problems’,” she says. “Watching my youngest struggle every day at school is what forced me to want to educate teachers and children about CO. The charity’s Key stage 2 and Key stage 3 PSHE packages are now ready for teachers to use. I just need to find a way to reach them.”

She adds: “Industry and government both have a big part to play in the fight against CO, but before they do anything they must listen to the ones whose lives this silent killer has affected.”

Having formed the Carbon Monoxide Awareness charity and continuing to act as its president, Ms Griffiths says it is run entirely by unpaid volunteers.

“If you know any company or organisation looking for a charity to support, please ask them to think of us,” she concludes.

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