Steve Beasant

Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Great Grimsby and Councillor for the East Marsh Learn more

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Gas companies must give free electronic carbon monoxide alarms to all households to halt thousands of poisonings

by Steve Beasant on 20 December, 2014

Gas companies must give free electronic carbon monoxide alarms to all households in a bid to halt thousands of annual poisonings, say councils.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents almost 400 local councils – who have responsibility for public health – says there is a “moral imperative” for utility giants to act on the issue as the winter months draw in and householders use their central heating more. These should be paid for from their profits – without the costs being passed onto households. Carbon Monoxide (CO) cannot be detected by human senses and in high doses can kill in minutes.

Four thousand people go to Accident and Emergency, 200 are hospitalised and 40 die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning. The LGA fears these figures are the tip of the iceberg, with many more cases going unreported – partly because many sufferers are unaware they are actually being poisoned. It is especially concerned about pregnant women as unborn and newly-born babies are particularly vulnerable to the colourless, odourless and tasteless gas, which can leak from faulty flues and boilers.

People exposed to lower level poisoning often experience symptoms similar to influenza or food poisoning. More severe poisoning can lead to collapse and death within minutes. Last month, a 23-year-old Polish model was found dead in her bath, killed by a faulty boiler.

The LGA says a simple electronic device costing about £15 could mean a “colossal cut” in the number of deaths and hospitalisations from carbon monoxide poisoning. Any utility company fitting or repairing gas appliances should offer householders free detectors, it says. This must be backed up by a concerted campaign by the gas companies and the Government to raise awareness.

Councils are taking the lead on this issue with many handing out free alarms to their residents. However, given the austerity cuts councils have been facing, it is now up to the gas companies to follow that example on a nationwide scale, argues the LGA.

While carbon monoxide alarms must be installed in any property where a solid fuel heating system – such as a wood burning stove – is installed, there is currently no requirement for other properties in England and Wales to have them (although landlords must keep all gas appliances and the flues they control in a safe condition and provide annual gas safety certificates). This contrasts with Scotland where all new-build properties must be fitted with CO alarms. Houses, hotels, guest houses and care homes there also must have an alarm installed at the same time as a new boiler or gas appliance.

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, Chair of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board said:

“As the cold weather bites this Christmas, more and more households will be firing up their gas central heating. With that comes an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Pregnant women, unborn children and babies are particularly vulnerable to this silent killer.

“Yet for the price of an electronic carbon monoxide detector that costs about £15 – and considerably cheaper bought in bulk – the gas giants could be potentially saving scores of lives. This initiative could lead to a colossal cut in the number of poisonings.

“The profits of the big six gas companies in particular have rocketed over the past few years and with another harsh winter forecast they are likely to soar again.

“We believe there is a moral imperative for them to put back what would amount to a fraction of those profits into offering these life-savings devices free of charge to all households. The gas companies, after all, benefit from selling boiler repair policies, so they will easily recoup their costs. The alarms should be paid for from their existing profits – the cost must not be passed onto their customers.

“In our view, any risk is a risk too far and inaction on their part is unacceptable. It is time to see them take corporate responsibility over this issue.

“We are also urging households to ensure all appliances are installed and regularly serviced by a reputable, registered engineer. While carbon monoxide alarms are potential lifesavers, they are not a substitute for this.”

If you believe your household is being poisoned with carbon monoxide:

  • Switch off the appliance and shut off the gas supply at the meter control valve
  • Call the National Gas Emergency Service immediately on 0800 111 999
  • Open all doors and windows to ventilate the room
  • Visit your GP and tell him/her that you believe you may have been exposed to carbon monoxide
  • Carbon monoxide alarms should be bought from a reputable retailers, or their gas supplier, or their registered heating engineer. The alarm should be marked as being compliant to EN 50291. If it carries the Kitemark as would be a bonus. EN 50291 is a tough European safety standard which governs the performance and third-party testing of domestic CO alarms.
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