Campaign Director for Project SHOUT, Rob Lyon has been a key figure in raising awareness about carbon monoxide in the home, and advocating the best way to protect those under your care - whether they’re tenants, family, or those sharing the same accommodation as you - by installing a CO alarm.
In the following interview, we asked Rob some of the key questions about carbon monoxide, the Project SHOUT campaign, and the best way to protect yourself against this ‘silent killer’ gas.
So Rob, what really is carbon monoxide poisoning?
Carbon Monoxide poisoning occurs when too much carbon monoxide is inhaled into the body. The gas can come from any fuel-burning appliance that is burning inefficiently - so this can include anything that ‘burns’ in the home. For instance, this could be a gas fire, a boiler, or a wood-burning stove. If it isn’t burning properly, or isn’t well ventilated, then this can result in the production of toxic carbon monoxide.
Who is most at risk?
Generally speaking, children and the elderly are the most susceptible. CO replaces the oxygen in the blood with carbon monoxide, so those with less oxygen in the blood already are more at risk.
Why is it so few people know about carbon monoxide poisoning?
The reason carbon monoxide is so unknown and under-reported is because it is commonly known as a ‘silent killer’. Its symptoms are not clearly identifiable, and you can’t see, smell or taste the gas. At low levels of CO the symptoms are similar (and often misinterpreted) as those of the flu, whereas at high concentrations you will start to feel very unwell - e.g. have blurred vision, start collapsing, and having seizures, and at very high concentrations you can die very quickly.
And what is being done to combat this?
The best way to combat carbon monoxide poisoning is to raise awareness about it. There are various campaigns doing this, one of which is Project SHOUT. This encourages servicing fuel burning appliances as a preventative measure - similar to other campaigns - but it has a fundamental focus on installing carbon monoxide alarms. At Project SHOUT we worked very closely with Stacey Rogers, who lost her son to carbon monoxide poisoning that seeped through the brick walls from next door’s property. Stacy could have serviced her boiler every day and it wouldn’t have had an effect on this - she really needed a CO alarm in the home.
So, what really is Project SHOUT?
Project SHOUT is an initiative that answers all the key questions about carbon monoxide: What is it? Where does it come from? Who is most at risk? But it’s also an awareness project, underlining the need to install carbon monoxide alarms in the home. With several other CO trusts there can be mixed messages in this industry, but we want to keep the focus on CO alarms. After all, it only takes one pigeon to nest on your boiler for it to block ventilation and lead to CO in the house.
What inspired you to get involved with Project SHOUT?
I was inspired after hearing Stacy’s story. It was so moving, and she’d been campaigning at a small-scale for years (e.g. the Domimic Rogers Trust). I knew she needed support and Project SHOUT provided her with the platform to tell her story and warn other people.
How can residents distinguish between a CO and fire alarm?
The main difference between carbon monoxide and fire alarms is where they are located in the home. Traditionally, smoke alarms are located on the ceiling, whereas CO alarms can be installed on a wall, or left free-standing on a work surface, mantlepiece or similar.
The alarms will also be identifiable as they will say clearly on the alarm what they are, and will have a different chirp pattern when they are triggered.
And what is the best procedure to do for each event?
The best procedure for each event is to always try and leave the property as quick as you can. In a fire incidence you call 999, whereas in a CO incidence you should open all the windows/doors to ventilate the house. However, this is dependent on how well you feel - you may need to call an ambulance, and you need to call a registered engineer to come and sort out the CO leak.
In England, the Building Regulations Approved Document J states that it is mandatory to fit a carbon monoxide alarm “where a new or replacement fixed solid fuel appliance (e.g. wood and coal burning, not gas) is installed in a dwelling”. Whereas in Scotland and Northern Ireland the Building Regulations require a CO alarm when a new or replacement fixed combustion appliance is installed. Do you think it’s a problem that legislation is only focused on new appliances rather than old ones?
It important to note that regulation in England focuses on solid fuel-burning appliances only, and boilers are normally oil or gas based so it will typically exclude them. Very few modern properties will have a wood-burning stove or an open fire, so it does also limit who this applies to.
Document J does follow building regs, so it is in line with that, but ultimately Project SHOUT campaigns that you shouldn’t wait for the government’s legislation/regulation. People are in control of this themselves, and in an ideal world every house should have a carbon monoxide alarm. There is an emphasis on the home-owner or parent, or tenants (as well as landlord) to take the responsibility upon themselves and install a CO alarm to protect their families.
What is the benefit of interlinking a carbon monoxide alarm with other alarms?
The speed of warning. Boilers are often in rooms in the home where you don’t spend a lot of your time. For example, in my home the boiler is actually in the garage. By interlinking the smoke alarms, the sound will carry throughout the property.
The sound of the smoke alarms will also have the same sound pattern as the initiating alarm, so in a CO leak, you will know that it is a CO leak and be able to respond accordingly. Interlinking alarms will therefore raise awareness sooner, so if you’re sleeping in your bedroom and the boiler is in the garage/utility room, it will warn you sooner that there is a problem.
What is the future for carbon monoxide alarms?
Carbon monoxide alarms will become more sophisticated in terms of the ‘connected home’ platforms. This has a focus on vulnerable tenants such as the elderly, who may not install and monitor the CO alarm themselves. For instance, my Grandma lives in Devon, but I will be able to monitor her alarm system from my smartphone. Therefore, if she is unable to respond herself, or is out of the house, I will still be able to see that there is a problem.
I can also foresee CO alarms becoming more popular in the future, and will become cheaper as more are manufactured. The sensors are also becoming smaller, and will become designed in a way so that it’s less intrusive - this is as more people are likely to want to put an alarm in their house if it’s more aesthetically pleasing.
There is also likely to be more portable options of CO alarms, e.g. those that have CO alarms built into their suitcases to bring on holiday. This may not be not be immediately effective (e.g. if the luggage is placed in a wardrobe) but the concept behind it is important. This in light of the Thomas Cook inquiry in 2006, when two children died as a result of a faulty gas boiler in their hotel in Corfu incident.
Travel companies such as AirBnB and Central Perks ensure they have a CO alarm in every property. It’s not mandatory, but it’s so important to protect the people staying there.
As shown in Freedom Of Information (FOI) reports sourced by Project SHOUT, there has been a 10% increase in NHS reported incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning - from 2,220 cases in 2013/14 to 2,430 in 2015/16. It is therefore vital that homeowners/tenants know about, and protect themselves against CO by install a CO alarm.
If you would like to find out more about protecting tenants from fire and carbon monoxide in social housing, you can download our free eBook here.