The Silent Killer In Our Homes

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This article has been reproduced by kind permission of The Mail on Sunday YOU Magazine.

On the evening of February 18th 2010, Katie Haines, 31, came home from her job as Press Officer at Oxford University. Earlier that afternoon, she’d told Richard, her husband of two months, what a good day she was having. She turned on the heating, which fired up the gas boiler in the kitchen next to the bathroom, and ran herself a bath. When Richard came home within an hour, he found her lying under water, unconscious. ‘I knew it must be gas-related because Charlie our cat was having real difficulty breathing.’ In fact, Katie had passed out due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from the faulty boiler.

Richard called an ambulance, then his parents who came immediately. The point Katie technically died – in the bath, ambulance or hospital – is uncertain, but she didn’t regain consciousness. ‘The gas is lighter than air, so she was probably okay when she was in the bath. But when she stood upright, she would have breathed in the gas and collapsed back under water,’ explains Richard.

Although CO is colourless, odourless and tasteless, the paramedics recognised the signs immediately and told everyone to get out of the house. ‘Luckily mum was mostly outside waiting for the ambulance but Dad and I had to stay overnight in hospital. I was nearly critical and had to be on 100 per cent oxygen until the level returned to normal.‘

According to GP Dr Rob Hicks, ‘CO is a highly poisonous gas, which can be released by faulty fuel-burning appliances, including boilers, cookers, or fires. Every year in the UK, 30 people die from it and many more are left with permanent brain damage causing memory loss, problems concentrating, or loss of vision and/or hearing.’

As in Katie’s case, some victims collapse and lose consciousness very quickly. But in many cases, there’s a slow build-up of this invisible poison. ‘The trouble is that the symptoms – headaches, dizziness, nausea, breathlessness, stomach aches and pains – are often put down to flu, food poisoning, viral infections or simply tiredness,’ says Dr Hicks.

Through the Katie Haines Memorial Trust, Lydia, Richard and other members of Katie’s family and friends are actively campaigning for awareness of CO poisoning, initially with vulnerable groups, including the elderly, students and others in rented accommodation, and anyone away from home. There are two simple measures to take: first, install an audible carbon monoxide alarm in your home (see below) and take one when you travel. Says Dr Hicks, ‘eight out of ten households don’t have CO detectors – and that means they are putting their lives at risk’. Secondly, make sure all fuel-burning appliances are checked and certified annually by registered professionals for your fuel type (for gas, it should be a Gas Safe Registered Engineer, see gassaferegister.co.uk).

Having a CO detector is no substitute for an annual safety check and please, never let an untrained person install or maintain any of these fuel-burning appliances. An untrained ‘boiler man’ was arrested in January on suspicion of causing the death of Zoe Anderson, 24, in Bath. Zoe, a neuroscientist and daughter of Chris Anderson, founder of Future Publishing, collapsed from CO poisoning while taking a shower.

As well as gas, potential sources of carbon monoxide include oil, wood and coal, according to COCAA (the Carbon Monoxide Consumer Awareness Alliance, an umbrella group of energy retailers, charities and industry, which works with government bodies; their website – becarbonmonoxideaware.com -gives lots of useful information).

Although carbon monoxide is undetectable, appliances usually show signs it’s being produced. If Katie and Richard had looked at the pilot light of the gas boiler, they might have noticed that instead of being blue with a crisp outline, the flames were yellow/orange in colour and ‘lazy-looking’. Other signs include sooting or staining around the appliance, or excessive condensation in the room where the appliance is installed. Good ventilation is always essential, so chimneys should be swept regularly.

‘Katie’s death has left us all devastated,’ says Richard. ‘She was a beautiful, vibrant daughter, sister and wife and has left an unrecoverable gap in our lives. I urge everyone reading this to buy an audible CO detector: it’s a small price to save a life.’

They are available at DIY stores, supermarkets, high street shops or from your energy supplier; look for the label EN50291 to ensure it meets European safety standards. Or order the Fire Angel Carbon Monoxide Alarm £24.99 from Victoria Health, a free-standing, portable unit so you can have it wherever you are.

Website of the week: b-eat.com

The leading UK charity for people with eating disorders and their families, Beat is the working name of the Eating Disorders Association. Eating disorders affect 1.6 million people in the UK. As well as the website and general helpline, 0845 634 1414, there’s a Youthline, on 0845 634 7650.

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