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Carbon Monoxide: Safety, Testing and Awareness

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

I have called for this debate today following my question in this place in February, when I asked the Government what steps they were taking to protect people from carbon monoxide poisoning at a time when so many are staying indoors during lockdown, with their windows closed and their heating switched on—prime conditions for CO poisoning to occur. Couple this with the fact that symptoms can be similar to those of covid-19, and I believe today’s debate to raise awareness is relevant and necessary.

Carbon monoxide is a deadly killer. Each death from carbon monoxide poisoning is fully preventable, yet we are still seeing too many lives lost each year by this silent killer. Today, I want to consider the main risks of CO, what actions the Government should be taking, and how we can raise awareness and prevent further unnecessary deaths.

If one searches the NHS website for carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms, the list includes a tension-type headache, tiredness, confusion and nausea. It states that the symptoms of exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning can be similar to those of flu. It should also say that they are similar to many people’s reports of coronavirus symptoms, yet it does not. When the Government guidance is to stay at home if you have covid symptoms and that this is the most dangerous thing you could do if you have CO poisoning, it is important that awareness is raised to highlight the distinction between the two. May I therefore ask the minister to look at that issue?

Annual gas safety checks are not as common as they should be. It is often another expense that people simply cannot afford, especially in many households over the last year where they have seen a reduction or loss of vital earnings as a result of the pandemic. There is no smell or taste to carbon monoxide gas, so without a detector there is no way of knowing whether a home or workplace has a leak, and no way of knowing if the nausea and fatigue someone is feeling is an illness or an escape of deadly gas that has the ability to kill within minutes if levels are high.

Molly Maher formed CO-Gas Safety and spent the last 35 years of her life fighting for a change in the law after fumes from a faulty gas water heater in a Tenerife apartment killed her 26-year-old son, Gary, and paralysed her 21-year-old daughter, Sheree, while the two of them were on holiday together in 1985. Molly sadly passed away last year, but the campaigning CO-Gas Safety Society continues her work to raise awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide. CO-Gas Safety strongly believes that more must be done to fully understand the scale of this issue, as well as strengthening the law to ensure that gas appliances are all tested regularly.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on this really important issue. She highlights the education programme. Does she agree it is so important that we campaign? This is a silent killer that can affect anybody anywhere across the UK, so education is key.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That brings me on to my next point, which is highlighting how many people this issue affects across the UK. It is reported that as many as 4,000 people a year are diagnosed with low level carbon monoxide poisoning, with 200 people admitted to hospital with serious injuries and around 50 fatalities. It is virtually impossible to know how many people are affected, but a recent estimate predicts that it can affect between 3 million and 5 million people in the UK.

There are several reasons why we do not know exactly how many individuals have suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. First, testing survivors is challenging and unreliable. Fresh air and oxygen quickly remove carbon monoxide from blood and breath, but may not dissipate it from bodily tissue which is what continues to damage a person. Secondly, the Health and Safety Executive, which is responsible for gas incidents, only investigates if there is a proven death from carbon monoxide, despite those levels staying the same until the body decomposes. This is an area that CO-Gas Safety and other campaigners have been working to change. There are around 3,500 unexplained deaths in the UK each year, yet none is automatically tested for CO despite it being a relatively straightforward procedure.

I wonder what thought my hon. Friend has given to carbon monoxide alarms. In the same way that fire alarms detect smoke, does she think there should be an obligation on anyone who has a gas appliance to install carbon monoxide alarms, for instance where they have tenants?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to make that point. We need to see an increase in carbon monoxide detectors.

I would like to share with the House the sad case, in 2003, of Paul Overton, who lost his beloved stepdaughter Katie, aged 11. Paul and his wife lived in rented accommodation with Katie and their two younger daughters. Katie was cremated, but her death was treated as suspicious by the police. Ten days after Katie’s death, the whole family nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning. It was then that Paul suspected and called a pathologist to investigate further. Thankfully, some of her blood had been kept, which after testing was found to contain CO. This was later judged to be the cause of Katie’s death. Paul’s landlord was convicted of failure to undertake a gas safety check. It was also found that the boiler required a service after which it emitted almost no CO—it had not been serviced for years. Yet the law governing the landlord gas safety check does not make boiler service or flue gas tests mandatory. It is staggering that that straightforward change in the law has yet to be made. In 2011, Baroness Finlay, then co-chair of all-party parliamentary carbon monoxide group, recommended that all deceased bodies should be tested for CO poisoning, but no action followed.

Carbon monoxide alarms are essential for the detection of CO gases. According to the 2015 regulations, private landlords are required by law to ensure that a CO alarm is installed in any room containing a solid fuel-burning appliance, such as a coal fire or a wood-burning stove, and they must be checked at the start of each new tenancy. For homeowners, that responsibility falls to them. That is why is it essential that we highlight and raise awareness of this serious issue.

Many campaigns, such as CO-Gas Safety, led by its hard-working president, Stephanie Trotter, and the all-party parliamentary carbon monoxide group, and many survivors and victims’ families have lobbied the Government for decades to raise awareness and change the law, with very limited success. It is important to note that although current law requires carbon monoxide alarms to be fitted in rooms containing a solid fuel-burning appliance, the Government’s website states that

“as gas appliances can emit carbon monoxide, we would expect and encourage reputable landlords to ensure that working carbon monoxide alarms are installed in rooms with these.”

That is where the law is incredibly weak. We know that gas appliances can and sometimes do emit deadly carbon monoxide gases, but the Government choose just to “expect and encourage” landlords to install carbon monoxide alarms, instead of making that law. Such a law could save lives simply by ensuring that all rented properties are fitted with relatively inexpensive detectors and mandating that they are maintained regularly, instead of at the start of each tenancy, regardless of its length.

My hon. Friend is making an important speech. I note what she said about the Government already expecting reputable landlords to do what she outlines, so does she agree that mandating and requiring them to do it through the change in the law that she suggests would not be onerous?

I completely agree. I hope that the Minister has heard that important point. I know that there was a Government consultation on this issue, which closed in January, but no follow-up or findings have yet been announced.

I commend the all-party parliamentary carbon monoxide group, which has worked for many years on this issue. In November 2017, it published a report on carbon monoxide alarms. After a thorough analysis, it made three recommendations. First, it recommended that the Government should update the existing Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015 so that landlords are legally obliged to provide CO alarms in rooms of private rented properties that contain any fuel-burning appliance, not just solid fuel appliances. The second recommendation was that landlords should be given adequate notice of and provided with clear guidance on future changes to the regulations. The third recommendation was that in subsequent reviews and amendments of building regulations, the Government should widen the requirement to fit CO alarms to all properties, including public and social rented sector properties and owner-occupied properties.

Those asks are well within the power of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to fix. This is a safety issue and the Minister can direct Ofgem to make it mandatory for the gas emergency service to test appliances for CO and ensure that, by law, all residences are fitted with a CO alarm. Those are reasonable and simple asks, so will the Minister outline the Government’s position on them?

This is the best speech on carbon monoxide, its dangers and the practical ways of reducing those risks that I have heard. May I suggest to the Minister that he invite Stephanie Trotter, who has been doing this work for 25 years, and representatives of the all-party group to a meeting with him, advised by the HSE, along with the National Residential Landlords Association? If the good landlords are doing what they should, the bad ones need to be encouraged. The regulations do not require registered gas engineers to test every time they have the opportunity to do so. That should be a basic requirement. It is like testing tyres during an MOT.

The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point and I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly.

The legislation is not tough enough, and

“we need to send out the message that we will not settle for anything less than the highest standards, which are needed to protect the most vulnerable people in our society.”—[Official Report, 23 February 1999; Vol. 326, c. 212.]

They are not my words, but those of the former Member for Houghton and Washington, East in a debate in this place on the same subject 22 years ago. It is not acceptable that, two decades later, we are still waiting for meaningful action. I hope that today the Government have finally listened and will act.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing today’s important debate on carbon monoxide and on the way she has spoken about this hugely important issue. The safety of the public is clearly a key priority for any Government, and the prevention of carbon monoxide poisoning features in the work of a number of different Government Departments and agencies. It is a multifaceted issue, which the Government recognise needs a coherent, joined-up approach, so I am pleased to be able to discuss this issue today.

While the trend for carbon monoxide poisoning is downwards, we clearly cannot be complacent, for the reasons that we have heard, whether it is the death of Katie, the death of Gary Maher or the life-changing paralysis of Sheree Maher. There was a campaign that was followed by Gary and Sheree’s mother Molly for many years. We need to make sure that we are very much on top of this issue. Twenty deaths a year by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning is 20 too many. These are human beings. We must remember them and we must act for them.

The Government and their agencies continue to take action to raise awareness about the risks. Every death caused by carbon monoxide poisoning is a tragedy, and those who survive severe carbon monoxide poisoning can feel the effects for many years, as we have heard. I formally thank the all-party parliamentary group on carbon monoxide for its tireless promotion of gas safety and its ongoing endeavours to increase awareness with Government, businesses and individuals. While carbon monoxide itself may be invisible, the importance of the issue must remain distinctly visible.

This debate gives us an opportunity to consider the importance of the topic and the levers to drive change, and it gives me an opportunity to highlight the latest steps that the Government are taking before I come back to awareness and education. It provides an opportunity to raise awareness with the public about the action they can take to protect themselves, but it also provides an important nudge and reminder to each of us here as individuals to ensure that we are taking the appropriate actions in our own homes to protect those who we love from this silent killer.

I want to take a few moments to talk about the protections already in place and what the Government are doing to protect the public. Reflecting the cross-cutting nature of the issue, the Government have in place a cross-Whitehall group under the chairmanship of the Health and Safety Executive. That group brings together the teams, agencies and Departments that have an interest in carbon monoxide and, more importantly, that have those levers to drive up safety and awareness in relation to the relevant sources of carbon monoxide—the appliances themselves, their installation and maintenance—and that have obligations to householders and tenants.

By coincidence, the group’s most recent meeting was earlier today, during which the group discussed issues, including recent Government activity to address accidental carbon monoxide poisoning and engagement with industry to drive up safety from the design stage of appliances onwards. The group provides regular updates on activity across Government to address the risks of carbon monoxide. It publishes an annual report that is available on the HSE website.

I must also mention the important work of the all-party parliamentary carbon monoxide group, to which we have had a few references. This group provides vital discussion and promotes ways of tackling carbon monoxide poisoning in the UK. Its membership has recently increased, showing the importance that my hon. Friends and Members from all parts of the House place on this important issue.

Turning to the protections already in place, there is robust legislation in effect to ensure that gas appliances placed on the market and placed in homes are safe. The essential safety requirements for gas appliances and fittings are governed in Great Britain by regulation 2016/426, which relates to appliances burning gaseous fuels, and in Northern Ireland by regulation EU 2016/426. The law requires that these products are designed and built so as to operate safely and present no danger, including in relation to carbon monoxide. They must be accompanied by instructions for use and servicing that are intended for the user and bear appropriate warning notices. The instructions for use and servicing intended for the user must contain all the information required for safe use and must in particular draw the user’s attention to any restrictions on use.

Enforcement authorities have a range of powers to take swift and robust action where a safety issue is identified with a product. In 2018, the Government took action to provide enforcement powers to the Office for Product Safety and Standards, as well as existing enforcement authorities, to maximise the opportunity to take action where necessary, but safe design is only one element in ensuring that the risks from carbon monoxide are minimised. Boilers, cookers, heating systems and appliances should be installed and regularly serviced, as we have heard, by a reputable registered engineer. Anyone carrying out work on the installations and appliances in a home must be registered with the relevant association, such as the gas safe register for gas appliances, the heating equipment testing and approval scheme for solid fuel appliances, or with the Oil Firing Technical Association for oil appliances. Where the appliance requires a flue or chimney, those should be swept regularly by a qualified sweep. These actions can provide reassurance and minimise the risk of carbon monoxide in our homes, but due to the odourless, colourless nature of carbon monoxide, fitting a detector provides an effective warning that the poisonous gas may be present.

Building regulations in England require the provision of carbon monoxide alarms when solid fuel appliances are installed. When alarms are required, they should comply with the relevant British standard and be powered to operate for the working life of the alarm. The housing regulations require carbon monoxide alarms when homes that have a solid fuel appliance are privately rented. As we have heard, the Government have recently consulted on proposals to extend the building and housing regulations to require the provision of carbon monoxide alarms to oil and gas heating installations and to social housing. My colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be publishing their report and response in due course.

There will and can be a risk of exposure to carbon monoxide in environments away from the home, where gas appliances or solid fuel appliances can be found—for example, in caravans, boats and mobile homes—so it is important that owners, whether the places are for their own use or are hired out, take appropriate action to minimise the risk of carbon monoxide to those staying in them. I reiterate that carbon monoxide alarms are a useful additional precaution, but they are not a substitute for proper installation, maintenance and the safety checks of combustion appliances.

The House will be grateful for the positive way in which the Minister is responding, although dates for when that Ministry will respond would be better. Can we remind the House that less than one part in 50 of carbon monoxide in the air can be fatal, and that alarms are not alternatives to maintenance and detection, but additional?

Indeed, and the Father of the House is, in his usual wise way, right to highlight the fact that not only is this a silent killer, but that it does not take much to have a drastic effect. Clearly, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will have heard his request to chivvy along that response and his request to meet, and I will make sure that the conversations that we can usefully have with Members of the House, and there are many, come through to the right Ministry so that they can have the best effect. I will reflect on that and return to it.

Raising awareness about the dangers of carbon monoxide and the actions to be taken to minimise the risk is absolutely key and that is why this debate is so important. The Government’s message is also very clear. We say to householders: use a properly trained, competent and gas safe-registered engineer to undertake work in your home and have all fuel appliances serviced on a regular basis. It is also good sense to have a carbon monoxide alarm fitted in your home as an additional precautionary measure. We say to landlords: ensure that you know the legal and moral obligations on you towards the safety of your tenants from the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. The hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) was absolutely right when she talked about the fact that we need to make sure that we are calling out disreputable landlords on that and that tenants need to clearly know their rights in this as well. And we say to those tenants: ensure that your landlord has undertaken the necessary steps to protect you from carbon monoxide.

The Government regularly review their messaging and information to ensure that it is clear and up to date. For example, there is a need to be vigilant in looking out for the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning at the moment during the coronavirus pandemic, as we have heard, because the symptoms of chronic CO poisoning may be confused with some of the signs commonly associated with flu-like illnesses such as covid-19. These include headaches, sickness, tiredness and shortage of breath. Similarly, one of the solutions for carbon monoxide poisoning, as the hon. Member for Barnsley East said, is fresh air, which is also shared with the covid-19 response.

Will the Minister respond to my point on the NHS website? Perhaps he could take it up with the Department of Health and Social Care, so that we can raise awareness of the similarities between these two illnesses.

I will happily take that away and reflect on it with the Department of Health and Social Care.

We are all spending significantly longer periods at home at the moment, although it is less, thankfully, now that we are in stage 2 of the road map as we take further steps along it out of lockdown. None the less, it is hugely important that we address this. I am pleased to say that we are approaching the warmer summer months, when switching on the heating may not be so much of a consideration, but in the recent cold snap, many of us have been tempted to switch the heating back on for a few days and maybe have our windows closed to keep out the cold.

I am sure it is no coincidence that Gas Safety Week is in September and Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week is in November, when the heating comes back on and we do all we can to avoid chilly draughts, potentially reducing crucial ventilation. Indeed, Gas Safety Week celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, and Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week is coming of age this year. These provide a useful reminder and help to raise awareness at a key point in the year, giving a timely reminder to ensure that appliances are serviced and checked. That does not mean that there are not risks at other times of the year. The development of a fault in an appliance is not restricted to a certain week or month, and the risks of using certain products such as barbecues in poorly ventilated or covered areas may be more prevalent as we head into the summer.

I was struck by the experiences that we heard from the hon. Member for Barnsley East of people who have been personally affected by carbon monoxide through not just deaths but the long-term effects. Members have heard from their constituents about tragic events that have possibly even led to close calls, which are no less terrifying for those going through that terrible experience. There are actions that we should all take as individuals to reduce the risk of exposure to carbon monoxide. Raising awareness and spreading the word through initiatives such as Gas Safety Week and Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week is also an important element of ensuring the safety of the public from the invisible threat of carbon monoxide.

The Government continue to keep this issue under close review and take steps as appropriate to increase safety and protect the public, but this is a welcome and timely debate and a reminder to Government and to all of us that we must continue to work to reduce and eliminate these deaths and the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.