“It was just a normal Saturday night,”.
That’s how Vanessa Robinson talked about the night of May 30, 2010, in a video on the Energy Safe Victoria web site. As was normal, her two children – eight-year-old Chase and six-year-old Tyler – had been playing inside the family’s Shepparton home. Following that, the family watched a few videos and went to bed.
During the night, one of the kids began to cry – then the other one. They must be having a nightmare and woken each other up, Robinson thought. They ran to her bedroom and jumped in bed with her, which they often did.
That was the last time she saw either of them alive.
Robinson herself did not wake up until around 6pm the next evening – feeling incredibly unwell. She was put into an induced coma and flown to St Vincent Hospital in Melbourne.
The two boys had died of poisoning from carbon monoxide – a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas which results from the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon fuels.
Sadly, this is far from the only case of carbon monoxide positioning in Australia. In Victoria alone, nine people have died from carbon the deadly gas over the past decade. In South Australia, 68 people were admitted to emergency departments with carbon monoxide poisoning over the three years to 2017/18. Given that carbon monoxide poisoning often involves symptoms which can be similar to the flu, this is almost certainly understating its impact. Earlier this year, the Victorian Government wrote to more than 6,500 public housing tenants to ask them not to use their gas heaters. This followed the July 2017 death of 62-year-old Sonia Sofianopoulos, who was found dead on the floor between the bathroom and a bedroom in her Greensborough public house with her heater still running.
According to the Federal Government (Department of the Environment and Energy), carbon monoxide impacts the health of both healthy and unhealthy people as levels of carbon monoxide reduce the amount of oxygen carried by haemoglobin around the body in red blood cells. As a result, critical organs such as the brain, nervous tissues and the heart, do not receive enough oxygen to work properly.
The gas is a by-product of combustion, and is present whenever fuel is burned. It is produced by common home appliances, such as gas or oil furnaces, gas refrigerators, gas clothes dryers, gas ranges, gas water heaters or space heaters, fireplaces, charcoal grills, and wood burning stoves.
Particular concerns surround open flue heaters and heaters which do not have any flue.
Essentially speaking, gas-fired heaters which are used and installed throughout households in Australia fall into three categories: room sealed heaters, open flue heaters and flueless heaters.
Room sealed heaters draw air from outside the house to feed the fire. Exhaust gasses such as carbon monoxide are drawn up the flue and dispersed outside. As these are sealed, gas is not drawn back into the room.
By contrast, open flue heaters draw air from inside the room to feed the fire. Whilst the deadly exhaust gasses generally draw up the flue, these can leak back into the room via a draft diverter which is installed to protect the burner from flames and wind gas.
These are particularly problematic where ventilation is inadequate – a growing concern in new houses which are built to high standards of airtightness. Accordingly, Energy Safe Victoria believes that open flue gas heaters are not compatible with modern, sealed homes. Ideally, the regulator says these should be replaced with either a room seal gas heater or a split system heater and air-conditioner.
Further problems occur with flueless heaters, which draw combustion air from the room and emit combustion products back into the same space where the heater is located. These require ongoing ventilation to external spaces both to allow fresh air to fuel the burner and to discharge combustion products.
Because of this, Energy Safe Victoria warns against bringing heaters from the outside into homes. In Sydney in 2015, a 29-year-old man died after using BBQ heat beads placed in a frying pan in what is believed to have been an attempt to heat his bedroom.
Robinson, who following the death of her sons founded the Chase and Tyler Foundation to raise awareness about carbon monoxide poisoning, says many households are unaware about the dangers posed by carbon monoxide.
“Before we started campaigning, there was some knowledge in the gas industry and building industry about carbon monoxide,” Robinson said.
“But when we are talking about consumer knowledge, there was very, very little information in that respect. We had the entire Australian community uneducated about how to use their appliances and how to keep themselves safe in the home. A lot of people – myself included – had made the assumption that we were in fact safe.”
“The reality was that we were very far indeed from that.”
According to Robinson. There are misconceptions about what carbon monoxide poisoning is. Many, she says, mistakenly associate it with gas smelled from a leak. In fact, she says, carbon monoxide is colourless, odourless and tasteless. It could be lurking in homes without occupants knowing.
At an individual household level, Energy Safe Victoria encourages home owners and landlords to observe a number of precautions. Heaters should be serviced by qualified gasfitters at least every two years. Heaters should not be left on overnight, used for extended periods or used when not required. Exhaust fans or fans in rangehoods, toilet or bathroom should not be used at the same time as gas appliances as these can create a ‘negative pressure’ effect where carbon monoxide that should escape out the flue is drawn into living areas. Though they should not be used as a substitute for proper maintenance of gas heating appliances, carbon monoxide alarms can be used as a back-up precaution. Whilst having windows or doors wide open is not necessarily, it was important to ensure that room ventilation is adequate. Owners of old appliances should consider replacing these with new ones. At the next opportunity, Energy Safe recommends replacing open flue heaters with closed room heaters or split system heaters/air conditioners.
Robinson says all stakeholders and participants must work together and play their part. Gas fitter should do thorough checks around the house to ensure that ventilation is adequate. When undertaking renovation, installation or new building work, meanwhile, builders, tradespeople and designers should adopt a holistic view about how the overall building will function and any safety issues which could arise from how the various features of the dwelling work together. The National Construction Code also needed to ensure that adequate ventilation was required in homes. Consumers, meanwhile, needed to be aware of the dangers and the need to have gas appliances serviced regularly. Consumers also needed to be wary of DIY work and any risks this could pose. Any purchase of a heavy duty extraction fan from Bunnings, for example, could cause problems where used in conjunction with an open flue heater.
On specific measures, Robinson says several area stand out.
First, annual or at least biannual servicing of all gas and fuel burning appliances by a Type A qualified gas fitter/plumber was crucial. Chimneys and flues should also be inspected annually lest any blockage or debris interfere with gas extraction.
Ventilation is a must. On this score, Robinson cautions about the push toward greater airtightness in homes. Whilst it is well to improve energy efficiency, she cautions about the need to also think about ventilation and safety as well. In her own case, Robinson said her home was not ventilated at all.
As mentioned above, extraction fans should never be used at the same time as gas heaters as these can create negative pressure and cause air to be drawn back into the home from the flue.
Fourth, bringing outdoor heaters indoors is to be avoided. Use of these unflued devices, Robinson says, can see gas noxious gasses build up indoors as there is no flue mechanism by which the gasses can be extracted. This is becoming a particular problem, she says, as rising energy costs prompt use of barbecues or patio heaters in this way.
Finally, the Chase Tyler Foundation makes a firm recommendation about the use of carbon monoxide alarms installed by qualified gas fitters. Whilst stressing that this is one of the ‘bottom stops’ and is no substitute for appliance servicing, Robinson says these should be in living and sleeping areas depending on the construct of the home.
Robinson would also like action at a broader level.
Governments should mandate servicing of appliances – at least in public housing and rental housing. Whilst this would ideally be required every year, she says it should be mandated at least every two years.
Doctors and physicians as well, could ask more questions. Since carbon monoxide poisoning victims often exhibit symptoms which are similar to those of other ailments such as the flu, Robinson says it is possible that cases of carbon monoxide sickness are going undiagnosed. Questions such as whether or not patients feel better in fresh air, have other family members with similar symptoms or have gas appliances within their home could help to uncover cases where carbon monoxide could be a factor, she said.
More research and statistics are also needed, she said. This is especially as many people were no doubt becoming sick from this without realising it.
She feels frustrated about a lack of action.
“The government knew about these risks, the housing department knew about these risks -people have to die for action to be taken.,” she said.
“Why is that always the way? They’ve got the information. They’ve had the information at hand. Nothing was done at that stage (before Chase and Tyler died).
“My family has been ripped apart. My two kids are buried in the ground. And there are all the other people whose families have been ripped apart by carbon monoxide.
“Why does it have to get to that stage before any action is being taken?”