EXCLUSIVE: Silent killer strikes close to home
An invitation to the House of Lords assembly is a fairly routine outing for a FIRE staffer. Parliamentary lobbies are quite common, often hinging upon community safety interventions, and commonly calling for domestic sprinkler installation or repeated calls for changes to the Building Regulations. However, the event attended by your correspondent this week was slightly different than usual. This event was for Carbon Monoxide Awareness week.
As possibly the only member of the press present, I have to admit that this was by far the most stimulating and emotionally challenging event I can recall. Speaker after speaker, victim after victim, recalled their traumatic stories of fathers, children, loved ones, all struck down by deadly CO poisoning. Then there were the survivors of the severe impact of Carbon Monoxide having suffered strokes, heart attacks and brain injuries. Each speaker - every single one - spoke agonisingly of the total lack of empathy from just about everyone they encountered: from landlords, housing associations, installers and trades people, to the legal and medical professions.
Real and lasting understanding and support for all came from Lynn Griffiths and colleagues at the Carbon Monoxide Awareness charity. They are evidently much more than a support and campaigning organisation; they act as a refuge and virtual lifeline for those victims who have been badly let down by an incurious and, consequently, often callous society.
It is worth noting that there are exceptions that rally against institutional insouciance, for instance the Halton Housing Trust and Hackney Homes, both rigorous supporters of the Gas Safe scheme. A handful of brigades were represented - Merseyside, West Midlands and London included - but we'll return to FRS support in a moment.
My step-daughter's brush with death is worth mentioning here because it throws up some recurrent issues and the challenge presented by new housing. After having felt ill for a couple of weeks, her condition worsened and she decided to go to A&E suffering from shortness of breath, sudden heart palpations, headache, nausea and dizziness.
Recurring theme #1: oversight. The doctor suggests the symptoms are down to too much coffee and cigarettes. Coffee? Really? I asked how many cups she had that day; must have been 8, 10, 12? "Two," she says. Images abound of caffeine guzzling youths staggering from Starbucks after one café latte too many. The serious point is that CO poisoning is not on the medical professions' radar: every symptom slots into another category of illness. Until you mention your boiler's on the blink, they take you for a caffeine addict and send you out with a leaflet on overcoming addictions.
Exaggeration? Dr Edward Walker, Emergency Department Associate Specialist, thinks not. His presentation centred on a century-old distortion whereby many members of his profession still believe CO poisoning doesn't lead to brain damage. Can you believe that? It's banishing sprinkler myths all over again, but this time convincing doctors and not just politicians. He intonated that the distortion is a useful one for the Courts: keeps the damage payments down.
Solicitor Stephen Baker, a Partner at Harris Fowler Solicitors, agreed. Car crash pay outs are clear-cut. Carbon Monoxide is not only a silent killer, it's also a silent case. Not many are willing to take them on because knowledge is limited across the board.
After the step-daughter returned from A&E, this less than savvy hack recommended an early night and to stop bothering health workers. The penny dropped a couple of days later when the boiler broke. An independent, accredited expert discovered that the flue was in such a state that when he went to touch it the whole thing fell apart. He advised that there was a huge chance that the loft was full of combustible gases.
Recurring theme #2: everybody's wise after the event. When you go to your GP after having been poisoned by Carbon Monoxide and can point to a faulty installation, they will diagnose CO poisoning. Get plenty of fresh air was the advice. Quite right too. She opened all the second floor windows and the cat promptly fell out - probably in desperation.
If this was a new home, what went wrong? Well, everything. That's part and parcel of buying a new home - leaky radiators, ill-fitting doors and windows, the usual complaints. It is only mentioned here because apparently, as far as installers and builders are concerned, faulty gas appliances come under the same heading. There were lots of shrugs and dispassionate mumblings. There goes recurrent theme #3: nobody seems to give a damn, because responsibility can be passed on: "Not my fault, blame the installer."
So where was the practical advice from supposedly well-informed family members? The smoke alarms were well situated, that's what got my attention, and I noticed there was a Carbon Monoxide alarm in the kitchen. Not ideally situated, but my antennae is attuned to fire, and even the mere presence of a CO alarm mollified me. Two closed doors between bedroom and kitchen, and subsequent low level CO poisoning has humbled this correspondent. Recurrent theme #4: nobody expects it.
After hearing the succession of harrowing accounts of severe poisoning and multiple deaths at Monday's event it is with great relief that I can assure that my step-daughter appears fine. She is undertaking a legal course with consummate ease and has just got a 3-D TV, so she's happier than a caffeine addict after 4 double espressos - although the cat's still out of control.
I mention this case because it is all about you and me: going about our everyday stuff, trundling along without a care in the world. We think it's alright, we think the threats are all out there - away from our cosy castle. Who looks after us in our own home? The answer to that, first and foremost, is you and me. We must be responsible for raising our own awareness. Socrates once told us that an unaware life was not worth living, and he's not wrong.
We could also do with some help. Awareness needs raising across the board. As apparently the only member of the press at the event, there is not much outward-facing campaigning that can be done at the moment. Sadder still, there was only one chief officer present, Vij Randeniya, plus one MP, Graham Evans as the Chair, and Baroness Finlay as sponsor. Credit here also to Merseyside and West Mids for their efforts to reduce preventable deaths, encapsulated by Gary Oakford's talk at the event. However, there was little support from the FRS as a whole. Recurrent theme #5: the scale of the problem has yet to be appreciated.
Previous campaigns teach us that there is a process of raising awareness from within the sector. Then there is the balance of raising public consciousness to such an extent that politicians are forced to act in their own best interest. Finally, that crucial cost-benefit analysis has to be weighted in the right direction. We're at square one. But we like a challenge, don't we?
My step-daughter is taking legal action. Her sentiments towards this are admirable: "Being outraged that our lives had been put in danger like this, we really wanted whoever was responsible for this to know the severity of the situation and insist that they take responsibility for their negligent actions." Her instant response on discovering she'd been poisoned by CO was to express relief that young children had not been in the house. Her next question: "What about everybody else in the street?"
Now let's wake up and get on with some targeted prevention work.
Posted November 18th.
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