Eddie Hughes: Carbon monoxide poisoning kills – but it’s an avoidable tragedy
Carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious and fatal problem – but it's one that is almost entirely preventable. A change in law could consign this silent killer to history, writes Eddie Hughes
Before winning Walsall North in June 2017 (the first Conservative to do so since 1976), I spent my professional career working in construction and housing. From my first job as a civil engineer for Balfour Beatty, to being the deputy chief executive of the YMCA, I wanted to use my knowledge and passion for high-quality housing to make a real difference as an MP.
As a long-term member of the Chartered Institute of Building and chair of whg – one the of the largest housing associations in the West Midlands – I was keen to hit the ground running to tackle one of the biggest issues facing us in recent years: keeping people safe in their homes.
The tragedy of Grenfell Tower serves as a reminder that we need to improve safety across the board for all residents in both public and private housing sectors. One of these key safety issues that I am particularly concerned about is carbon monoxide poisoning. Known as the silent killer, it is produced from inefficient combustion of carbon fuels and cannot be seen, heard or tasted.
In high doses, it can kill in minutes, and even low level exposure can cause long-term health problems. More than 25 people are killed each year in carbon monoxide-related incidents in England and Wales, with recent tragic deaths in Edgware and Cannock over Easter.
Each year, hundreds of people are hospitalised and approximately 4,000 people go to A&E with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning – and these figures could be a fraction of the actual numbers affected, considering low awareness of the symptoms among the public and medical professionals.
Currently, the law says carbon monoxide detectors are required in the private rented sector for solid fuel-burning appliances such as wood-burning stoves. However, there is no requirement for social housing landlords to comply, or for other forms of combustion such as gas.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious and fatal problem, and the levels of needless death are almost entirely preventable. I want to consign this silent killer to history.
The stories associated with deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning are heart-rending. Through my work on this I have been in contact with the families of victims of CO poisoning, including Avril Samuel of the Katie Haines Memorial Trust, and Stacey Rodgers of Project SHOUT. Project SHOUT was created following the death of Stacey’s son, Dominic, who was only 10 years old when he died.
On a night like any other, Stacey kissed Dominic goodnight, told him she loved him and went to bed. The next morning when she went into his bedroom, she found him cold and face down. Following an investigation, it was announced that he had died from carbon monoxide produced by a faulty boiler in a neighbouring property. The silent killer had seeped through the brickwork into his bedroom. Dominic would have been overcome by the poisonous fumes within five minutes. Sadly, there are countless more stories like Dominic’s.
This is why I was one of the first to queue for a 10-minute rule bill to improve current legislation and reduce the number of unnecessary deaths each year due to carbon monoxide poisoning. On Wednesday 13 September 2017, I was given permission by the House of Commons to present a 10-minute rule bill to prevent death and injury from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The bill received support from MPs right across the house; from all four nations and all political colours. We held our own consultation, the first such on a private member’s bill, with support from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, landlords and medical experts, among many others.
I firmly believe that not only should audible carbon monoxide alarms be mandatory in new-build properties, but they should be installed in all rented properties, including social housing as well as in the private sector.
Any fuel-burning appliance that is not properly maintained has the potential to be a source of carbon monoxide so we should be designing this problem out.
We also need to ensure that people are fully aware of the risks associated with a gas that people cannot see, smell or taste. Therefore, I also proposed that fire authorities have an explicit duty to promote carbon monoxide safety. That would not be an additional strain on the public purse, but would make current best practice by many forces enshrined in law.
Following discussions about my bill with ministers at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the housing minister, Dominic Raab, decided to support its objectives and has announced a government review into the regulations and laws that govern carbon monoxide alarms.
I’m pleased the housing minister has responded positively to the campaign and the work done by all those involved in raising awareness of this silent killer and I look forward to the outcome of the review. Any future changes would take account of the outcome of the government’s consultation on the operation of private rented sector alarm regulations and Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review into building regulations and fire safety.
I would like to take this opportunity to commend the tireless work of Stephanie Trotter of CO-Gas Safety as well as the many MPs and peers on the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group. Everyone has pushed hard on this issue, fighting to improve awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning and increase protection from it. I am certain that the dedication of those I have worked with over the past year has saved lives.
This campaign has been a fantastic learning curve in how parliament and public policy can be shaped, and I am hopeful that in due course the law will change and we can further improve tenant safety.
Eddie Hughes is Conservative MP for Walsall North