Silent killer

PhilHunt2014.jpegPhil Hunt on why the UK government must help drive a Europe-wide gas safety campaign

It cannot be seen, smelled or tasted but official figures show over 4,000 people every year are diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning, with a resulting 40 deaths. A figure that is likely to be a gross underestimate.

The poison arises when there is incomplete combustion, such as when gas, oil or wood does not burn properly. As the related All-Party Parliamentary Group point out, in the home this is most commonly caused by appliances and flues that have been incorrectly installed, not maintained or are poorly ventilated.

Although the problems have been known for years, government action has been frustratingly slow. Today in the Lords however, a small bit of progress is being made. Regulations are being debated which requires landlords in the private rented sector to ensure that a carbon monoxide alarm is equipped in any room which contains a solid fuel burning combustion appliance. Welcome as this is, much more needs to be done both in the UK and Europe if the public are to be protected from what is a preventable form of poisoning.

First though, we need to get to grips with the scale of the problem. Carbon monoxide has to be suspected before it is tested for. This doesn’t always happen – even with unexplained deaths. The APPG suggested in 2011 that all coroners post-mortems should routinely test for carboxyhaemoglobin levels and if necessary record death as a distinct category. So far, Ministers have ignored the recommendation.

The government also needs to do much more to make people aware of the need to install, maintain and service fuel burning appliances in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Plus insist on the installation of smoke and carbon monoxide detection in homes and businesses where such fuels are used.

The situation in Europe is also worrying – something illustrated vividly by the tragic deaths of Christi and Bobby Shepherd, who were just seven and six years old when they died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler while holidaying in Corfu in 2006. Eight years on, the inquest into their deaths reopened in Wakefield and in May of this year the jury concluded that the children had been unlawfully killed and that the travel company responsible for the holiday, Thomas Cook had ‘breached its duty of care’.

The extent of the problem throughout Europe remains unclear, with each individual case presented as a tragic occurrence rather than part of a systematic failure. Work commissioned by the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) from John Gregory, a CORGI gas safety expert shows ‘a lack of legislative consistency’. Regretfully, the UK government has opposed the introduction of European Safety Regulations. The European Commission meanwhile, having launched a Green Paper on the safety of tourism accommodation services, will now not be taking it forward.

There is clearly an urgent need to build a Euro-wide carbon monoxide safety campaign – something that our government could help drive. Too many people have died from this largely unknown and silent killer. How many more deaths have to take place before decisive action is taken? 

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Shadow Health Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum 

Published 7th April 2015

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