Summer is finally here and with many young people preparing to soak up the atmosphere at a variety of music festivals over the next few months, now is the time to start thinking about camping safety.
Tents are often pitched close together at festivals as space is highly sought after. Naturally the focus is on having fun, but does the same amount of effort get invested into thinking about safety as it does in deciding what to wear and which acts to see? Because when it comes to the poisonous gas carbon monoxide (CO), taking time out to plan ahead and understand the risks of burning fossil fuels could help save a life.
CO is called the “silent killer” because it is colourless and has no smell. It is poisonous because it blocks the ability of the blood to absorb oxygen. CO results from the burning of all fossil fuels – not just gas and it is given off most when things smoulder rather than burn fiercely. Smouldering barbecues, in particular, give off CO but are mainly safe to use when outside in a well ventilated space. But problems arise when campers become tempted to take a barbecue or gas stove into tents, awnings, caravans and motorhomes in order to keep warm or to shelter from the rain. RoSPA strongly advises people not to do this:
- Warm, smouldering barbecues, as well as gas stoves give off enough CO to kill
- Exposure to CO in small amounts leads to a variety of symptoms including headaches, sickness, dizziness and breathlessness, which means there is a real risk of a person collapsing and becoming unconscious
- The symptoms, which can often be confused with flu or a hangover, tend to disappear as soon as you get outside into the fresh air when oxygen levels in the blood are restored.
We are aware of at least five deaths from suspected CO poisoning involving campers in the UK in the past year. One victim of suspected CO poisoning was as young as six. The most recent case involved a 14-year-old girl who was found dead inside a tent at a Shropshire campsite in May. She is reported to have died from suspected CO poisoning after inhaling fumes from a disposable barbecue placed inside her family’s tent. These tragic deaths are a cold reminder of the consequences of not being fully aware of the dangers of CO. Each year in England and Wales, there are approximately 50 accidental deaths, 200 non-fatal poisonings that require hospital admission and 4,000 visits to A&E that result from CO poisoning*.
Here are some top tips to consider when cooking outside:
- Always cook two to three metres away from your tent and remember that cooking outside is a very different experience to cooking in the home, so accidents can easily happen
- By making sure the stove or barbecue you are intending to use is set up on a solid and level surface; you reduce the risk of it falling over and setting the ground alight
- Once you have finished with your barbecue it should be put fully out and stored well away from your tent, caravan, awning or motorhome in a well ventilated area. If the barbecue is warm it still has the potential to give off poisonous fumes.
Also, before daylight fades and the party gets into full swing, spare a moment to think about any potential fire hazards which could give you a nasty surprise. It is particularly important not to use a barbecue inside a tent for heat as you run the risk of fire as well as poisoning. There may not always be a water supply nearby to put a fire out and with so many tents in such close proximity to one another, the fire could quickly spread. Even a fire-resistant tent may burn and smaller tents mean there is usually only one exit. Also, however big the temptation may be to use naked flames such as cigarette lighters to see where you are going, opt instead for a torch. Naked flames spell nothing but trouble when coming into contact with tents!
Ultimately, festivals are there to be enjoyed to the max and camping is all part of the fun. For some it might even be the start of a brand new experience, but how angry and upset would you be if you or a friend ended up with serious injuries as a result of CO poisoning? By familiarising yourself and your friends with this safety advice, you are already making great steps to help reduce the risk of having your holiday fun rudely interrupted by a silent killer. Knowledge is power, so why be ignorant to the dangers when you can be one step ahead of the game?
For further advice and information on camping safety, visit www.rospa.com/leisuresafety/adviceandinformation/leisuresafety/camping-safety.aspx.
For more information on CO poisoning, visit www.carbonmonoxidesafety.org.uk.
*Figures quoted by the Department of Health (www.dh.gov.uk/health/2011/11/co-poisoning/).
Want to find out more about the science behind why CO is poisonous? Visit RoSPA’s FAQs.
Jenny McWhirter, RoSPA’s risk education adviser