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The health impacts of using gas heaters and appliances at home

The health impacts of using gas heaters and appliances at home

Monday, June 06, 2022

Do you have a gas heater, or other gas appliances in your home? In a recent interview on ABC Radio, the Woolcock's Dr Christine Cowie provided some handy tips on how to minimise the health risks associated with using gas appliances this winter. 

What’s the problem?

Gas heaters and stoves emit noxious gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde. When a heater is not flued to the outside of the home, or if a heater is faulty or old, and a room is not adequately ventilated, these gases can build up to hazardous levels.

Many of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are general and can be mistaken for the flu or the common cold. Symptoms like headaches, general malaise, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness can all be symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure. Highly elevated levels of carbon monoxide can be particularly dangerous and can lead to death in extreme cases.  

Australian studies have shown that indoor air pollution from gas heating in homes and schools is associated with increased asthma symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing. One study has estimated that 12 percent of childhood asthma is associated with gas cooktop stoves.

Get your gas appliances checked

Carbon monoxide is difficult to detect and has no odour or taste. For this reason, it’s recommended that gas heaters be checked at least every two years by a licenced gas fitter, and that householders ask for a compliance certificate. 

This applies to any gas heater, whether it's flued or unflued. A flue is a duct or large pipe used to discharge exhaust gases to the outside of a house. But even flued gas heaters can emit noxious gases into the room.

How would you notice if there was a carbon monoxide increase in your home?

It can be difficult because you can't see or smell carbon monoxide. That's why miners used to take a canary down a coal mine – the birds were a warning signal for elevated carbon monoxide levels. 

The build-up of gases depends on the concentration that is emitted into the room and also how much ventilation the house gets. A lack of ventilation can be a real issue, especially as we move to more energy-efficient homes, which is a great thing from an energy conservation perspective, but without good ventilation, a build-up of gases can occur inside the home.

Tips for people with gas appliances in their home

  • Get your gas heater checked at least every 2 years (every year if possible) by a licenced gasfitter and ask for a carbon monoxide leakage test to be done. 
  • Use a carbon monoxide alarm. There are affordable alarms that provide a good extra safety measure.
  • Don't install gas heaters in bedrooms.
  • Don't sleep anywhere there's a gas heater.
  • Don't use gas heaters overnight or for extended periods.
  • Ensure you let plenty of fresh air into your home during the day. 
  • Don't use outdoor appliances – such as outdoor gas heaters, briquette BBQs and charcoal burners – indoors. 
  • Use the ventilation hood whenever using a gas cooktop or stove, as this will reduce indoor levels of noxious gases.
  • Consider replacing your gas appliances, and consider switching to electrical appliances.

Remember, it's not just gas heaters that are of concern 

There have been cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in Australia as a result of unintentional dangerous behaviours, such as people using outdoor appliances indoors. Watch out for pool heater enclosures, gas cookers on boats and caravans, and wood heaters: anywhere you have an enclosed space and combustion, carbon monoxide or other harmful gases can build up.

We want you to have a warm and comfortable – and safe! – winter. 

Christine was interviewed by ABC Radio Adelaide.

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