Health: An invisible killer in the kitchen: First she felt sick and dizzy, then she passed out. Kate D'Lima was nearly killed by her gas boiler

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The saga began in September when my cleaning lady fainted in the house. Feeling desperately ill, she walked home leaden-limbed, fighting extreme tiredness. She went to her doctor twice, worried by her experience and concerned that it would happen again. Her doctor put it down to stress. Meanwhile, I had felt generally unwell for some time - but nothing specific. I felt worse in the mornings and evenings when I was at home. It seemed like lingering symptoms of flu.

Three times I went to my surgery complaining of dizziness and headaches. Each time we related it back to a riding accident in the summer. One doctor suggested an inner-ear infection. Finally I was referred to hospital for a brain scan. The result was normal.

Then, in October, the weather turned bitterly cold and the problem reached a crisis. My son was away, staying with friends. I returned from work intending to wash, change and go out. I switched on the central heating and the hot water to run a bath. I telephoned my mother and we chatted for a while. As I lay in the bath I gave it a few bursts of renewed hot water - and then felt a swamping tiredness. I forced myself out and washed my hair. This demanded yet more hot water and the gas boiler worked at full power.

I remember hearing a dull thumping sound, which I thought might be music playing somewhere. Then I realised it was in my head and that I was also feeling wretchedly ill, a mixture of nausea, utter disorientation and dizziness. I managed to telephone my mother and ask her to call a doctor.

I must have blacked out. When I regained consciousness, my limbs would barely work. I remembered that the doors were locked, so no one could get in to help me. After an enormous struggle I managed to get downstairs and unlock the back door. I lay on the floor, convinced that I was dying. The boiler in the kitchen continued to work the heating.

I decided I was having a heart attack because of the pain in my chest. I then considered a blood clot, because my head was swimming and the thumping sound had become a continual rush.

When my mother and the doctor arrived, about 45 minutes later, they called an ambulance. I was given oxygen and had an electrode attached to a finger. This was an ultraviolet pulse oximetry probe, which measured the oxygen level in my blood.

I was diagnosed as 'cardiac system, vaso-vagal attack'. In casualty I was observed, my blood sugar level and blood pressure measured. I was discharged the same night on condition that I stayed at my mother's house. The advice given was to rest with my legs propped against a wall if I felt dizzy again.

When I returned home the next day the weather was still very cold and I took to the sofa with a blanket and kept the heating on all day. Throughout the following week I suffered extreme headaches that felt like a swollen band around my head and sometimes down the neck. I had up to three migraines a day, with blurred vision and nausea. Whenever I stood up I felt dizzy. I went to the doctor and I stayed with my mother whenever I could. At least I felt a little better each time I was out of the house. I went to work when I felt well enough, only to be told to go home because I looked so deathly pale.

My mother had suggested a gas fault, but I dismissed this because the boiler had been serviced in June under a year- long service contract with British Gas, which had included a safety check. The boiler was seven years old, which did not seem cause for concern. But then my 16- year-old son returned home and he began to have headaches and feel dizzy. I thought first about what we had eaten; I considered meningitis; then I thought again about gas.

Now very alarmed, I called two friends who had been in the house for a few hours in the previous week. Both said they had experienced severe headaches shortly after visiting me. I telephoned British Gas's emergency number.

The engineer who called showed me that the flue was not working by holding a lighted piece of paper to the area for extracting waste; the flame should have been sucked out, but it remained steady. He shut off the boiler, hung a 'dangerous appliance' notice over it, and left an additional notice that listed it 'dangerous' with 'faulty flue' marked as the defect.

I telephoned the British Gas district manager, who was eager to establish whether my hospital blood test had found carbon monoxide. But the casualty staff had simply pricked my finger to test the blood sugar level. They had not thought about carbon monoxide poisoning, nor had my own doctor, who told me he thought this could no longer happen since the change to North Sea gas.

A British Gas representative called and I signed for a new boiler, which cost about pounds 900. Then began a difficult battle. Over four months, a series of meetings involved four British Gas managers, two manufacturers' inspectors, three members of the Gas Consumers Council and hours of listening to technical details. Although British Gas admitted finding carbon monoxide, it maintained that the boiler and flue installation were satisfactory and that weather conditions were responsible. Eventually it admitted the ventilation was inadequate, that the flue was too short. Disciplinary procedures began against the engineers who had serviced the boiler.

They suggested compensation of pounds 500 and expenses but, although I was heartily sick of the whole business, I could not accept it. The Gas Consumers Council offered a free, independent abitration service. About a week later, the arbitration date was set for 10 February.

The previous weekend an entire family in Gwent underwent treatment in a decompression chamber for carbon monoxide poisoning from their gas boiler. The baby died, while the elder brother and parents were responding to treatment.

On the same day as the arbitration Radio 4's Face the Facts featured carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty gas appliances. Relatives of people who had died told tragic tales of symptoms that had been misunderstood and which were remarkably similar to my own. One man had asked the police: 'Which son?' and had been told 'both', after his boys died from carbon monoxide poisoning in their flat. One girl's doctor had diagnosed a migraine. She later died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide monitors are available at some DIY shops, but British Gas says they may not be reliable. Managers are waiting for EU regulations on their manufacture and use. Meanwhile faulty boilers kill. Perhaps all gas users should keep canaries.

The danger signs

SIX WEEKS ago Kate D'Lima, an arts journalist from Kent, was awarded pounds 2,400 compensation from British Gas after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from her faulty domestic heating boiler. She came close to death. Neither her own doctors, nor ambulance personnel nor staff at an accident and emergency department suspected the real cause.

Between 40 and 50 deaths and around 150 non-fatal incidents involving faulty gas appliances are recorded each year by the Health and Safety Executive. All such incidents have to be reported to the HSE by gas suppliers.

The Oxford Textbook of Medicine (1987) puts the number of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning at around 1,000. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys' Mortality Statistics, 1992 shows 20 deaths from 'carbon monoxide from incomplete combustion of other domestic fuels', 45 'other carbon monoxide deaths' and 71 deaths for 'accidental poisoning by other utility gas and other carbon monoxide'. 'Other' includes incidents involving car exhausts and liquid gas.

Ms D'Lima had headaches, flu-like symptoms, disorientation, lethargy, dizziness and nausea. While they could indicate many conditions, including heart disease, they are classic symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

There may be other danger signs around the appliance: stains and sooty marks on the ceiling or walls and around the flame; a pilot light that keeps going out, a particularly yellow or orange flame and above-average condensation.

(Photograph omitted)

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