/ Health, Home & Energy

Carbon monoxide: the cause for alarm

carbon monoxide alarm

Following the death of her daughter Katie from carbon monoxide poisoning, Avril Samuel co-founded the Katie Haines Memorial Trust. It helps raise awareness about the dangers of the deadly gas and to prevent unnecessary loss of life especially through carbon monoxide alarms.

Thursday 18 February 2010 had been a busy day at work because my husband Gordon and I were driving later that evening to our cottage in Wiltshire, en route to Cornwall for a few days.

However, while we were on the M4, we received a call that changed our lives – a parent’s worst nightmare. Our eldest daughter Katie, 31, married in a fairy-tale wedding just two months prior, had been involved in an accident and we had to get to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading immediately.

While her husband Richard was on his way home from work, Katie had taken a bath, but on standing up had been poisoned by a lethal dose of carbon monoxide [CO] from a faulty boiler, causing her to fall back into the bath, hitting her head on the side. Sadly, it was too late by the time Richard returned – Katie had drowned, with 37% CO in her blood [normal levels are less than 2.3%]. Richard, who fortunately survived, incurred 20% while trying to resuscitate her.

Our home boiler was regularly serviced and when the registered engineer recommended we install a CO alarm, we did so without really thinking about it. I think I am reasonably intelligent, but I was still unaware of the dangers of carbon monoxide and never checked to see whether our children had alarms in their homes. I thought CO poisoning was something that happened elsewhere.

Ironically, Katie and Richard had bought a smoke alarm that came with a CO alarm, and although they had installed the smoke alarm, they hadn’t got round to putting up the CO alarm.

Raising awareness

Following Katie’s death, we set up the Katie Haines Memorial Trust [KHMT] with Richard to raise awareness of the dangers of CO. Sadly, there are still up to 50 deaths per year and over 200 people attending hospital with suspected CO poisoning, according to NHS figures. The symptoms of this are flu-like and people can suffer low doses of the poison for years without it being detected.

We’ve since given away thousands of carbon monoxide alarms to vulnerable people, spoken at freshers’ fayres and industry conferences and, something of which we’re most proud, made three carbon monoxide awareness films.

We were particularly concerned that there were no prime-time TV advertisements, such as those we’ve seen for drink-driving, strokes and heart attacks, and so decided to make our own YouTube films, which have now been viewed by thousands of people.

We introduced our latest film, Cause for Alarm, at the launch of the sixth annual Gas Safety Week in September.

It shows that two simple steps can protect you against this ‘silent killer’. Firstly, to have your carbon-burning appliances regularly checked by a registered professional and, secondly, to install one or more audible CO alarms in your home.

We also commissioned a YouGov survey, which found that of the 2,133 adults polled, only 40% knew that the only safe colour for a flame on a gas appliance is blue. KHMT has warned people that if flames have a slight yellow or orange tint they could be emitting CO.

Advice on carbon monoxide alarms fpr staying safe

I’m obviously very concerned that Which? found 10 dangerous CO alarms in its recent tests of them. All of these alarms claimed to have passed the relevant EU safety standard, EN 50291.

My advice would be to always purchase audible CO alarms from a reputable source and to make sure that they carry the BSI Kitemark safety certification BS 50291. Remember to test your alarm weekly and to make a note of the expiry dates — most alarms last for seven to ten years.

Never rely on the patches that change colour when they detect CO, either. I can’t actually believe these are still sold – what on earth happens when you’re asleep and unable to check for a colour change? A noisy alarm is much more effective at alerting you to a CO leak.

I’d also advise landlords to make sure tenants have sealed-unit alarms, thus ensuring that batteries aren’t taken out to replace in a remote control.

But as much as you can make your home safe with an audible alarm, what happens when you sleep away from it? That’s why our trust advocates taking an alarm with you when you go away, whether you’re staying in the UK or abroad. We’ve noticed that whenever we’ve stayed in B&Bs, they don’t seem to have them, so we talk to the owners and often by the morning they’ve ordered some on the internet.

Our trust has received many emails from people thanking us for raising awareness of CO because they had been saved by alarms they’d bought after hearing about Katie’s tragic story.

Katie’s future has been taken away, but it’s comforting to know that she has saved other people’s lives.

This is a guest contribution by Avril Samuel, co-founder of the Katie Haines Memorial Trust. All views expressed here are Avril’s own, not necessarily those shared by Which?.

Do you think more can be done to improve our safety when it comes to carbon monoxide? Do you have carbon monoxide alarms and regularly check that they work, or have you ever come across a dangerous one?

Comments
John Lewis says:
2 November 2016

Ebay and Amazon seem to be unable (or perhaps unwilling) to monitor and control the items which are listed on their websites. I have reported counterfeit items to eBay on numerous occasions yet months later the same traders are still operating selling the same counterfeit items.

Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the number of counterfeit items out there and are unwittingly buying products believing them to be genuine and manufactured to EU/UK regulations. Trading Standards need to be more pro-active in their response – perhaps one way of bringing it to peoples attention would be insisting that either eBay, Amazon and other such sites take better care over what items are listed or that there should be a warning on the log-in page advising consumers to take caution as some items may be counterfeit and/or dangerous.

I think if eBay and Amazon make a charge for allowing traders to use their sites then they should also take some responsibility for the products on offer. Once defective products have been reported those, and the trader offering them, should be removed and maybe an initial penalty imposed. If the practice continues then prosecution could be the next step. We can all look on the internet for goods and take responsibility if we buy from unknown sites out of our jurisdiction. However when Amazon’s or eBay’s name is attached there is trust in the brand by many, and that should not be broken. But who should deal with transgressions?

It is generally recommended that smoke alarms are fitted on ceilings and newer battery-operated ones have an expiry date, as Avril pointed out earlier. It would be very helpful to have a standard design so that the alarm can be attached to an existing base, making replacement a simple task. If the old base has to be removed from the ceiling and replaced by one of a different size with differently placed mounting holes, there is less chance that householders will fit replacements for old or faulty alarms. The same applies to carbon monoxide alarms, which come in different shapes and sizes.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to replace my interlinked mains-powered smoke alarms, which were installed when the house was built, 18 years ago. Which? tests do not cover this type, possibly because they must be connected to the mains supply.

I selected replacements that looked similar to the existing alarms and was delighted to find that the bases were identical. I did use the new ones but was able to use the same screw holes for mounting them. The new alarms were much louder and much better than the old ones.

The old alarms had a slide-out battery drawer for the 9V backup battery and the battery can be changed without taking down the alarm. Furthermore, the drawer can not be closed if no battery is present, an excellent visual indicator that attention is needed. The new alarms have to be removed from the base and to replace the battery is a fiddly job involving a difficult to fit connector and a tiny screw securing the battery cover. To replace the battery it is really necessary to disconnect the mains connector and that locks into place, with no indication of how to remove it.

Usually designs improve but the exception proves the rule. If we are to be properly protected by smoke and carbon monoxide alarms they need to be designed in ways that will encourage proper use and maintenance. I will be contacting the manufacturer to point of the good and bad points.

Philip Mitchell says:
17 November 2016

We bought a carbon monoxide alarm in 2012, made by Kidde. It may have been a recommended model at the time. On reading the November 2016 Which report I note that the model we have installed looks exactly like the Lifesaver CO alarm pictured in the report.
Is this a different company? Or are these alarms made by the same company and then badged?

It looks as if ‘Lifesaver’ is just a brand that is or was used by Kidde. From a retailer’s website:
“Product Information
About the Kidde 5CO:
The Kidde 5CO is part of Kidde’s Lifesaver Brand offering continuous monitoring against the potential dangers of Carbon Monoxide.”

I have posted this under this Convo because it is indirectly related to this topic. John , is it you that lives in London ? If so for the first time (this era ) London Mayor Sadiq Khan has issued a “very high ” air pollution warning its been assigned- “Black Level ” by an air monitoring team at KIng,s College London also by Airtext (London air monitor ) . Might be worth a subject on Which ? I remember the days of SMOG when you couldn’t see 6 feet in front of you and had to keep a handkerchief across your mouth+nose and it ended up covered in dirt.

Not me, Duncan. We live in Norfolk where the air is good [except in Norwich which suffers from high pollution levels in the city centre, a lot of it coming from buses and taxis that have exclusive use of certain streets].

The smogs in London used to be thick and yellow suggesting a high sulphur content. There were many deaths and illnesses caused by the London smogs. We get thick mists in certain low-lying areas that make driving hazardous but they are not fume-laden.

The Mayors of London after Ken Livingstone haven’t done much to relieve London of pollution except some new buses and taxis with lower emissions. Boris Johnson even cancelled the extension of the Congestion Zone because it was going to interfere with the lifestyles of the residents of Kensington and Knightsbridge. And Mayor Khan seems hell-bent on filling every square centimetre of London and its environs with more development leading to more commuting and more traffic.

I can’t believe that the proliferation of air conditioning isn’t having a harmful effect on the atmosphere, and not just from the production of electricity that is required to operate it but from the hot air and its contents that is exhausted from buildings. Climate change? – We’re in it.

Nitrogen oxide levels frequently exceed limits in parts of London. Most is due to motor vehicles. How ever much we try to reduce engine emissions in my view only by restricting the volume of traffic, particularly at peak times, can we hope to improve air quality to acceptable levels. Who will be brave enough to do that?

“The lethal carbon monoxide alarms we found on Amazon and Ebay” https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/06/the-lethal-carbon-monoxide-alarms-we-found-on-amazon-and-ebay/ – Which?

It’s good news that Amazon and eBay have removed these products from sale, and congratulations to Which? Will Amazon and eBay be contacting everyone who has purchased these products?

“‘When household names such as Amazon and Ebay are selling products that could put consumers at risk, it is clear more must be done by businesses and the Government to proactively identify potentially dangerous products and stop them from entering people’s homes.’

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/06/the-lethal-carbon-monoxide-alarms-we-found-on-amazon-and-ebay/ – Which?

It seems impossible for “business and the Government” to identify every fraudulent product from getting onto the market – the resources simply do not exist. However, what we should be doing is making those responsible for facilitating the sale of these items pay heavy penalties, for example Amazon and ebay in this instance (and for several other reported dangerous products, including illegal 2-pin plugs).

Will Which? campaign for traders in illegal and fraudulent goods, or who host such trades, to be named, prosecuted and given deterrent financial penalties? Maybe if allowing such lax trading were not financially worthwhile the likes of Amazon and ebay might behave more responsibly and select (and reject) their “partners” more carefully.

However, policing is part of the key to protecting the consumer and it is high time we put some taxpayers money into funding a proper and effective national trading standards organisation to deal with errant traders. Will Which? also campaign for this? I’d divert all penalties (less costs) into their coffers to help them with their work.

It seems there is a real gap in consumer protection. Which? is there to deal with such gaps, is it not? Will it act?

Hi Malcolm, as you’ll know we’re currently campaigning on dangerous products (https://campaigns.which.co.uk/product-safety/)

We want to see the UK’s product safety regime reformed in order to better protect people, which we’re looking to achieve through engagement with the government and influencing companies to change how they work. I realise that’s quite broad, but the specific details you mention would likely come with larger change to the reforms we’re fighting for.

Although not strictly CO-centric, George, I wonder if Which? has ever thought to look at coach and bus companies and their stubborn refusal to turn off their engines while awaiting passengers?

For as long as I can recall coaches and buses will sit and idle, their engines pumping out NO for all the world to breathe and it seems to me that this is an area that Which? could usefully explore.

I’m not talking about bus stops but small termini in rural locations whee the bus has to wait between 5 and 20 minutes before setting off. Or near schools, where buses and coaches will almost always sit, engines idling away, and refuse to shut them down. This is a health issue, with potential for long-term problems for many.

Hi Ian. To my knowledge it isn’t something that’s been looked at here before specifically, but I know we’ve discussed pollution/air quality in the past: https://conversation.which.co.uk/motoring/air-pollution-car-emissions-nox-gasses/

I can certainly pass it on to the relevant teams.

At each bay in our bus station in town there is a sign: “Switch your engine off”. The drivers are good at following the instruction.

Diesel engines don’t normally produce much carbon monoxide (petrol engines did in the days before three-way catalytic converters) and I doubt they put out much nitrogen dioxide at idling speeds, but it is unpleasant for those waiting in bus stations.

@gmartin, Hello George.
Your campaign ends with
Which? has a long track record of improving safety standards for UK consumers, and we can do it again with your support.
implying the problem lies with “safety standards”. It does not, in the main. We have extremely good product safety standards that are well designed and have, in principle, protected the consumer for decades.

However, it is no good having safety standards if they are ignored by some, and if the goods placed on the market are not properly monitored for compliance with standards.

In the first case, there are rogue companies (like for your CO alarms) that deliberately manufacture products that do not comply with standards but claim they do. The way these get onto the market is through distributors and importers. Amazon and Ebay were prime offenders in your report. But if the only action taken was to ask them to stop selling these fake CO monitors then you achieve virtually nothing. How many more fake or dangerous products are these organisations, and other importers, putting on the market that you do not pick up on?

The only way we might hope to curb this dangerous practice is to prosecute these sellers, impose heavy penalties, to deter them in future – make it unprofitable financially. Why has Which? not tried to get prosecutions of Amazon and Ebay in this instance, let alone over the continuing 2 pin plug issue?

In the second case, you have probably only picked up the tip of an iceberg. It is Trading Standards regulatory job to police the market for fake and dangerous products, to remove them or prevent them from getting in to circulation, and to deal with offenders. We know they are hugely under-resourced and under-funded. Until we have appropriate product policing I see there being no change.

Do Which? agree we need to deal severely with offenders and build Trading Standards into an adequate organisation to protect consumers. Will Which? use their influence to try to achieve this? Better than seeming to, wrongly, try to cast doubt on existing safety standards.

Phil says:
11 July 2018

On older vehicles, and are there are still plenty of them around, there could be a major problem getting them started again if the engine is still hot. Companies might also cite the need to keep heating/air conditioning operating.

I applaud Which? for uncovering these dodgy CO alarms. However, what else are Amazon, Ebay and others allowing onto the market that Which?, and others, do not uncover? It should not be for 3rd parties to discover fraudulent and dangerous products by chance. Amazon, as a prime example, should be ensuring that whatever is sold under their control is safe and meets appropriate regulations and standards – after all, they are the ones who make money out of these sales so they should take responsibility for the integrity of what they sell.

Totally agree. If they take a sale on, then they take the responsibility for that sale and that company on too. Failure to do so should be noted when ever a bad product is purchased, though that relies on the consumer reporting the fault or the fake. Perhaps there should be a specific part of the sales site that is easily accessed, and such products can be listed at the click of a mouse. The supermarket has a help desk that does this in the non-virtual shopping world and most -though not all – shops we use regularly, don’t sell fake and dangerous goods; though, again, some white goods have potential hazards that the well known manufacturers should sort out. It would be unfair to ask a shop to police these, unless they are aware of the risk from negative publicity. Banning them, then, would chivvy the manufacturer to do something about the danger.