[Skip to content]

Sign up for our daily newsletter
The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Why carbon monoxide should matter to actuaries


Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a deadly gas emitted from appliances using any carbon-based fuel that burns (gas, coal, petrol, diesel, wood, etc). This means millions of household cooking or heating appliances emit CO within their exhaust or flue, and if these are not installed, exhausted or flued, or maintained correctly, they can cause injury or even kill. In fact, less than 2% of CO in the air can kill within just three minutes. Firemen describe it as three breaths: the first you don’t know there’s anything wrong, the second you think there might be, but by the third you are incapable of doing anything about it.

Symptoms of low-level CO are similar to viruses and food poisoning – headaches, nausea, sleepiness and generally feeling unwell. “Flu like” is often how you feel. 

Statistics from the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group (APPCOG) suggest that 4,000 people are diagnosed each year with low-level carbon monoxide exposure, with over 200 admittances to hospital with serious injuries, and 50 deaths every year. But is this the full extent of the picture? Given that CO cannot be detected by any human sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing or sight, mild side-effects often go undetected until the most serious side-effects are encountered. Even then it is often missed by medics. Some put the actual number of people experiencing any form of CO poisoning in the millions. APPCOG also calculated the approximate cost to society, and found that preventing carbon monoxide poisoning could save the UK over £178 million a year, as well as avoiding immeasurable suffering. Surely this makes CO an issue worthy of greater focus?

As we observe Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week from 17 November, we call on actuaries to help us better understand the extent of CO poisoning and raise awareness to prevent future illnesses and deaths.

Stephanie Trotter OBE

President and director of CO-Gas Safety 

18 September 2017