What do you know about the “silent killer”?

In August 2010, two healthy and happy teenage boys died at a holiday flat in Castlerock, Co Derry. Neil McFerran and Aaron Davidson, both aged 18, had been spending a weekend at the seaside village with their friend Matthew Gaw, also 18, as they waited for their exam results.

The teenagers, from Newtownabbey, were overcome by carbon monoxide. Neil and Aaron died; Matthew spent time in hospital suffering the effects of the poison gas.

A faulty liquid petroleum gas appliance was found at the flat.

We at RoSPA hear of around 50 accidental deaths per year in the UK from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, and more than 200 cases of recorded non-fatal injury – which can often lead to lasting neurological damage.

Carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer: you can’t see, hear, smell or taste it.

It is produced as a waste product from the burning of gas and other fuels, including wood, coal and oil – and can build up to dangerous levels if a fuel-burning appliance is incorrectly fitted, badly repaired or poorly maintained, or if flues, chimneys or vents are blocked.

We need to get the message out there that carbon monoxide is a killer, and that such deaths are easily prevented.

Neil and Aaron’s mothers have made a film with RoSPA Northern Ireland to raise awareness of the “silent killer” and let people know how future tragedies can be prevented.

Catherine McFerran and Katrina Davidson give their personal accounts of the tragedy that claimed the lives of their sons, Neil and Aaron, during a weekend away last summer.

As well as their story, the film shares some of the steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of CO poisoning, focusing particularly on the families’ campaign for people to use audible CO alarms. Jim King, from the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland, is also interviewed.

The film can also be watched at www.rospa.com/homesafety/aroundtheuk/northern-ireland/carbonmonoxide/.

Make sure you know what to look out for – carbon monoxide can be given off by all fossil fuels:

  • Boiler pilot light flames burning orange, instead of blue
  • Sooty stains on or near appliances
  • Excessive condensation in the room
  • Coal or wood fires that burn slowly or go out
  • Families suffering prolonged flu-like symptoms.

Take a few simple precautions to reduce your risk:

  • Have your gas appliances serviced annually by a gas engineer who is registered with Gas Safe Register
  • Use professionals to service any other fossil-fuel burning appliances such as oil or coal burning stoves annually
  • Fix carbon monoxide detectors in your home; these can be purchased from most DIY-type stores
  • Ensure that such detectors are maintained and replaced according to packaging instructions.

We at RoSPA would emphasise, though, that CO alarms should be used as a last line of defence – they are not a substitute for servicing and maintenance.

The above advice obviously applies to the home; but what about when you’re away, like in Neil and Aaron’s situation?

The landlord or owner of holiday accommodation must have gas appliances serviced regularly – and should be able to provide a gas safety certificate if you ask for one. Don’t be afraid to do so – it could save your life.

Neil and Aaron’s families have launched the Gis A Hug Foundation, which they are in the process of establishing as a charity, to take forward their campaign and raise awareness of the importance of having fuel burning appliances serviced annually and audible CO alarms fitted in homes and holiday accommodation. See www.gisahugfoundation.co.uk for details.

More CO information is available at www.rospa.com/homesafety/adviceandinformation/carbonmonoxide/.

Ita McErlean

RoSPA’s Home Safety Manager for Northern Ireland

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