Stopping The Killer Cowboys

Carbon monoxide kills by stealth and it thrives thanks to a combination of ignorance and the unscrupulous, but with awareness and vigilance this deathly spectre can be driven from the nation’s homes

They don’t call it the silent killer for nothing – every year carbon monoxide (CO) kills around 50 people in England and Wales alone, but the ill-effects of poisoning afflict thousands more, and can sometimes lead to long-term health issues long after exposure to the gas.

The Department of Health says that CO poisoning sends around 4,000 to A&E each year, with on average 200 people being hospitalised every year in England and Wales.

The ill-effects of exposure, and the deaths, are fully preventable – but it demands awareness of the issue and vigilance to ensure preventative measures are in place.

Carbon monoxide chiefly kills in the home. The gas is colourless, odourless and difficult to detect, so we can be completely unaware that we are inhaling it. There’s more to it than that, of course, for the ill-effects are easily mistaken – and therefore written off – for other, less serious ailments.

“The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are very similar to those for flu and food poisoning, including persistent headaches, sickness and tiredness,” said Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England.

Acute exposure to CO can result in anoxic brain injury, according to the brain injury association Headway: “[A]cute CO poisoning may lead to quite severe long-term neurological problems, with disturbances in memory, language, cognition, mood and behaviour.”

It’s easy to imagine how these might be mistaken for natural decline in mental faculties of the elderly. Other high-risk groups include pregnant women and young children, but nobody is immune from the potentially lethal effects of CO.

The winter months are a peak for carbon monoxide dangers, the colder weather prompting the use of heating systems, but it remains a year-round danger nonetheless because of cooking appliances.

CO arises from the incomplete combustion of fuel – typically but not exclusively natural gas – in domestic heating and cooking appliances. The gas is colourless, odourless and notoriously difficult to detect – it even gives blood a seemingly healthy shade of red. That’s where the problems arise, with the blood.

The ill-effects brought about by the gas are not caused by asphyxiation, rather by “squatting” in the red blood cells, thereby blocking oxygen.

CO has a strong affinity with haemoglobin, the protein in our blood cells that carries and delivers oxygen around the body. In fact, blood cells have a curious preference for carbon monoxide over oxygen. That’s what makes the gas so dangerous.

“Although carbon monoxide is difficult to detect, there are sometimes indicators that may suggest a fault with domestic appliances or flues,” said Dr John Cooper of the Health Protection Agency (HPA).

“The signs of trouble are black sooty marks on the radiants – the clay bars above the gas flames – of gas fires, sooty marks on the wall around stoves, boilers or fires, and smoke accumulating in rooms due to faulty flues.”

Yellow instead of blue flames from gas appliances are another sign of a potential fault, although to complicate matters this does not apply to fuel-effect or decorative flame gas fires as these are designed to appear as if they are burning solid fuel. Other danger signs include pilot lights
on appliances that keep going out and excessive condensation on windows.

As with many things in life, forewarned is forearmed. In a sense, it isn’t the CO that kills people – rather it is ignorance.

Raising awareness of the sources of CO, the danger to life and wellbeing it represents, and the simple measures to stave off this silent killer is the single most effective means of tackling the issue.

Awareness is a must, but there is one further crucial aspect. Tragically, as the raft of prosecutions carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) testify, there are plenty of people more than willing to gamble with others’ lives. Most householders aren’t gas engineers and lack the expertise to safely install and maintain appliances (whether that’s to prevent the things leaking gas and blowing up or else gassing us with the CO backwash), so they must place ourselves in the hands of the experts – but how to tell them from the charlatans?

That’s where the Gas Safe Register comes in. Any engineer installing or maintaining a gas appliance must be Gas Safe registered by law. The gas safety regime replaced the old Corgi accreditation in April 2009 and has demonstrated some clear gains in enforcing safety for consumers, though of course it remains an ongoing effort to ensure we can all safely turn on the hob or the heater.

“Gas Safe Register’s contribution to public safety over the past three years has been invaluable,” said Barry Sheerman MP, co-chair of the All Parliamentary Gas Safety Group (APPGSG).

“The register has provided a fresh approach to raising awareness of gas dangers to the public and as a result we hope this will reduce the number of deaths relating to gas.”

Since the Gas Safe Register came into being, some 2,000 cowboy gas fitters have been investigated and £500,000 worth of fines have been paid by fitters prosecuted for illegal gas work.

Furthermore, seven illegal gas fitters have been imprisoned for putting lives in danger, while 120,000 homes have been safety checked and eight in ten people are now claimed to be aware of the register and the importance of gas safety.

“Gas safety is a life or death matter that affects the entire nation,” said Paul Johnston, chief executive of the Gas Safe Register.

“The register was launched in 2009 to deliver a sharper focus on gas safety and to protect the public from dangerous and illegal work. We have made significant improvements: before we launched in 2009 only seven in ten people understood gas risks and that a register existed.

“Our fight against illegal gas work continues. Too many people are caught out by illegal gas fitters who put their homes and families in immediate danger and the work costs thousands to rectify. As well as raising awareness of the dangers of using unregistered gas fitters, we also need to encourage more people to get their gas appliances checked regularly, as this can be just as dangerous. Of the 21 million homes with gas in the UK, nine million haven’t had their appliances checked annually, which is concerning.”

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