A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

New campaign warns against silent killer in the home

Energy Safe Victoria’s new campaign, slated Cold Feet, has screened in local cinemas for the first time and will hit TV screens from Sunday night, aiming to raise awareness about the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning from gas heaters.

Words by Keryn Reynolds
 

Carbon monoxide (or CO) poisoning can occur from faulty gas appliances. The gas is a silent killer, as it is odourless, invisible and tasteless.

The new campaign reminds Victorians that while CO poisoning often involves older gas heaters, it can also occur with newer gas appliances that have not been serviced regularly.

On average, one Victorian dies from CO poisoning each year, with many more admitted to hospitals suffering serious side effects, including nerve damage and memory loss.

Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) director Paul Fearon urged people to have their gas heaters serviced by a registered gasfitter, a minimum of every two years.

“When my boys died it was a big shock to the community, but over the years I think people tend to become complacent about servicing their heaters. Don’t get complacent – complacency can kill.” — Vanessa Robinson

“Both old and new heaters are subject to performance degradation over time,” he warned.

While dust build-up in gas appliances is often a problem, other issues include incorrectly-fitted flues and poor home ventilation patterns, leading to new gas heaters being included in the public safety campaign.

“When a licensed gas fitter comes to a home, they aren’t just testing the gas appliance – they are testing the outcome of the total environment,” Mr Fearon said.

Currently there are no state or federal laws requiring regular checks of gas home appliances, or for the installation of mandatory gas detectors, which are common in a number of countries.

Gas detectors and alarms are available in Australia but ESV does not support the installation of alarms as a single solution.

“CO alarms are not a silver bullet,” Mr Fearon continued. “They are part of the solution, but it doesn’t mean people can put alarms up and not get their appliances serviced. Gas alarms are not like smoke alarms; CO does not act like smoke does.”

While landlords are not legally required to undertake CO checks, they are exposed to costly civil liabilities if gas appliances are not installed correctly, or well-maintained.

ESV suggests that before signing a lease, people should consider adding a clause requiring landlords have gas appliances checked and certified as safe every two years.

Mr Fearon said that while CO deaths were tragic, an underlying public health risk also continued in relation to chronic low-level CO poisoning.

The new campaign also aims to make doctors aware of symptoms that are often mistaken for the flu, including persistent tiredness, shortness of breath, mild and severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, general weakness and confusion.

“Nothing that would indicate something catastrophic is about to happen, but these symptoms are often associated with low levels of ongoing background CO poisoning,” Mr Fearon said.

If CO is detected in a home, people should leave or be removed from the area immediately as most CO is eliminated from the bloodstream within eight-to-10 hours after exposure ends.

“CO alarms are not a silver bullet. They are part of the solution, but it doesn’t mean people can put alarms up and not get their appliances serviced. Gas alarms are not like smoke alarms; CO does not act like smoke does.” — Paul Fearon, ESV director

Restoring breathing and oxygen levels by artificial respiration or resuscitation equipment can treat most acute cases of CO poisoning.

A previous ESV campaign featured Scott and Vanessa Robinson, who lost their sons Chase, 8, and Tyler, 6, from carbon monoxide poisoning at their rented Shepparton home in 2010.

At the time, police wrongly suspected Ms Robinson of being involved in the deaths of her sons. Although she survived severe CO poisoning, Ms Robinson suffered complete renal failure, heart and liver damage and short-term memory loss.

In 2013, the Robinsons launched the Chase & Tyler Foundation to reduce the number of deaths and injuries throughout Australia caused by carbon monoxide. 

Ms Robinson continues to support the new ESV campaign.

“When my boys died it was a big shock to the community, but over the years I think people tend to become complacent about servicing their heaters. Don’t get complacent – complacency can kill,” Ms Robinson said.

The Foundation suggests people buy a CO alarm as a secondary measure against the silent killer.

Australia currently does not have a standard for CO alarms but available alarms meet US and European standards and cost about $50.

Licensed and qualified gasfitters can be found at Master Plumbers Victoria or the Victorian Building Authority.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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