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Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 00:15 GMT 01:15 UK


GPs 'miss CO poisoning'

Gas fires are one potential source of the poison

Family doctors are failing to recognise the signs of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, even though there are simple tests available, according to an editorial in the British Medical Journal.

The authors say 50 people die from the poisoning each year, but as many as 25,000 are exposed to the gas in their homes.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford: "Carbon Monoxide will kill many people this winter"
However, because the early symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to common complaints such as flu or stomach infections, many doctors fail to make the right diagnosis.

They say that blood or even breath tests are simple ways to identify exposure to CO, but "most of the time, no one thinks to do the test".

Autumn danger

Dr Ed Walker, from Dewsbury District Hospital in West Yorkshire, and Dr Alastair Hay, from Leeds University, said the number of deaths from CO poisoning begin to rise in autumn as the weather gets cooler.

[ image:  ]
CO is produced when hydrocarbon fuels - such as wood and natural gas - are not burnt properly.

Badly ventilated rooms with gas heaters are a particular hazard, as CO cannot escape if it is produced as a side product. Another problem is that it is odourless, colourless and tasteless.

The doctors say the most tragic consequence of a missed diagnosis is that patients may be discharged to the very environment that is poisoning them

"The saddest thing is people get misdiagnosed, told it's flu and they should go home, rest and turn the heat up - and of course that's the source of the problem and the poisoning kills them," Dr Walker told BBC News Online.

"Several cases like this have been recorded."

Long-term danger

The main problem was that GPs did not consider CO poisoning, even though the issue had received much publicity in recent years.

"The fatalities get noticed, but it's the long-term problems we're concerned about, when an entire family suffer the same symptoms but it's put down to an infection."

Flu and ME - or chronic fatigue syndrome - were the most common misdiagnoses, he said, and a previous study had shown that only one case out of 77 genuine poisonings was recognised as such.

"With a simple, non-invasive testing device the chances of such tragedies could be dramatically lessened," the doctors said.

"But to achieve this we must also see increased awareness of the problem, among patients and their doctors."

Dr Walker said the breath test machines were, at £600, inexpensive, and that tests could be performed by nurses so as not to use up doctors' time.

However, they could only detect CO for up to four hours after exposure, so if a patient thought they had been affected they should hurry to a doctor, he said.

Earlier this year research funded by the independent healthcare watchdog The King's Fund found thousands of people were suffering the effects of CO poisoning.

King's Fund grants director Susan Elizabeth said: "Man-made hazards in the environment are a major public health issue of our time.

"The effects of pollution on people's health are only beginning to be understood, not only by scientists but health professionals, policy-makers and the public.

"It is vital that people who suffer the ill-effects of poisoning are supported by health services and that awareness of the risks is raised more widely."

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