Warnings as 'silent killer' carbon monoxide claims UAE lives

Toxic fumes from heaters used in closed rooms claim lives at risk as temperatures fall

Doctors have issued fresh warnings following a spate of deaths caused by the ‘silent killer’ carbon monoxide poisoning.

Single-digit temperatures at night have led to families turning to portable heaters to keep warm, while closing windows and doors has increased a risk of toxic fumes building up in homes.

Two domestic workers lost their lives to odourless, deadly fumes from a charcoal burner in Dubai on Saturday.

Police said the Bur Dubai incident was the sixth recorded death from carbon monoxide poisoning in the past year.

On Tuesday, an Indian family of five from Dubai also died in their beds while holidaying in Nepal. They and three friends were overcome by lethal gases emitted from a heater they used in their hotel room.

“We have seen several cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in recent weeks, so we know it remains an issue,” said Dr Saheer Sainalabdeen, a pulmonologist at Medeor Hospital, Dubai.

“This gas cannot be seen, smelled or heard - it is deadly, but it can be prevented.

“Heating appliances or burning certain materials produces highly toxic fumes.

“The effects can be devastating, as we have seen.

“Thankfully, these kind of incidents are rare, as Dubai has pretty high standards for heating appliances.”

The latest deaths came just days after Abu Dhabi Police warned about the risks posed by charcoal and wood fires, as residents turned to traditional methods to keep warm as temperatures dipped across the country.

It is not just gas heaters and charcoal burners that carry such deadly risks when used in areas with little or no ventilation.

Gas cooking hobs used widely in housing developments across the country also pose a threat - as do faulty appliances.

Last year, Whirlpool, an appliance manufacturer, issued an urgent recall of steel built-in gas hobs manufactured between 2014 and 2016 and sold in the European Union.

The large front-left burner was found to potentially emit levels of carbon monoxide which could breach EU standards, creating a “low risk” of adverse effects.

Anyone who has succumbed to toxic inhalation can be treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, although this is not always available at primary care centres.

The treatment balances out the oxygen in the blood, reducing the toxic load of carbon monoxide that can prove fatal.

Dr Sainalabdeen said time is of the essence when treating victims of carbon monoxide poisoning, as reducing oxygen levels in the blood can leave long lasting damage.

“If inhaled, it causes severe symptoms like headaches, dizziness, nausea and chest-pain,” he said.

“In a higher concentration, people lose consciousness and die.

“Anything that burns fuel can cause these toxic fumes.

“Most of this kind of oxygen therapy treatment is available at tertiary care centres only, so action is needed fast to offer the best chance of survival.

“Patients admitted to emergency rooms usually have to be transferred to a specialty unit, so time is of the essence.

“It is important to detect it early and get immediate help.”

Although carbon monoxide is commonly found in the blood, it is usually at very low levels.

Non-smokers typically have carboxyhemoglobin levels at less than three per cent, whereas smokers can show readings of between 10-15 per cent.

When carbon monoxide blood readings hit 25 per cent, patients usually lose consciousness and suffer organ damage.

“Carbon monoxide is a silent killer,” said Dr Rania Zein Eldien, a specialist in respiratory medicine at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi.

“When people are asleep, it is a real problem that can lead to brain damage or even death.

“It is more of a problem in winter as people are increasingly using heaters in homes where there is poor ventilation.”

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide poisoning accounts for more than 50,000 hospital emergency admissions, and more than 400 deaths each year.

Those over 65 are most at risk and make up most of the fatalities.

Regular maintenance of appliances is essential.

But a carbon monoxide monitor can also save lives by detecting dangerous levels of the gas and can be purchased for less than Dh100.

“There are some serious side effects from inhaling carbon monoxide that can damage the heart, leading to sudden heart attacks or foetal death and miscarriage in pregnant women,” said Dr Eldien.

“This can all be avoided by taking some simple steps, like installing carbon monoxide detectors, and to open doors or windows when using heaters in the home or car.”