Gas fires MOT to reduce death toll

Expanding student population at risk from faulty appliances
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The Independent Online
The rising death-toll from carbon monoxide poisoning could lead to laws requiring all gas fires to have MOT-style safety certificates. Nigel Griffiths, the Labour consumer affairs spokesman, said the plan was part of a review of gas safety procedures planned by the party if it wins the election.

The expanding student population and pressure on private rented accommodation have contributed to a marked increase in deaths from the odourless and tasteless gas.

The Carbon Monoxide and Gas Safety Society (CO-Gas) said 63 people died from CO poisoning last year, including 36 from faulty gas heaters, an increase of 24 per cent over 1995. The deaths have led to a succession of investigations by police and the Health and Safety Executive into how the gas fires were installed and maintained.

Sonja Hyams, 18, a student at Keele University, died in her digs in Stoke-on-Trent in November and four other 19-year-old students who shared the house were taken to hospital suffering from gas poisoning.

Last month two men were arrested in connection with Miss Hyams's death and released on police bail.

In a separate case coming to court this month, the HSE is bringing a prosecution against two Staffordshire landlords who rented a terraced house to Robert Dunn, 22, who was found dead from CO poisoning in his bedroom in November 1995.

The HSE alleges that the landlords contravened gas safety regulations by failing to carry out safety checks on his gas boiler.

Also this month, three men are due to appear in court in Suffolk charged with the manslaughter of Paul Foster, 19, who was found dead from CO poisoning in the bedroom of his Ipswich flat in February.

The prosecution followed an investigation by Suffolk police, Suffolk Fire Service, the HSE and Ipswich Borough Council.

January is usually the worst month for CO deaths, and campaigners are concerned that a continued lack of public awareness of the risks is adding to the toll. Last month an Oxford inquest heard that Karen Weise, 25, a nurse, had sought hospital treatment after complaining of nausea and palpitations.

She was sent home and she and her boyfriend, Michael Wood, 30, died the following day in their bed.

They were poisoned by gas because a spell of extremely cold weather had brought on a down-draught in the chimney and exacerbated the effects of a faulty boiler.

The HSE has stepped up enforcement activity against landlords and gas fitters who breach safety rules. Last year the number of notices served on landlords and fitters for gas safety failings rose from 59 to 165.

Among those prosecuted was the London borough of Camden, which was fined pounds 44,000 by Clerkenwell magistrates in November after failing to give annual services to tenants' gas fires and other safety failings.

Bob Clapham, head of enforcement at the HSE, said 33 unregistered gas installers were also prosecuted last year.

Stephanie Trotter, president of CO-Gas, said that a full register of qualified individuals who fit gas fires should be drawn up immediately and those that are prosecuted should be struck off.

Since 1991 all gas fitters have been required by law to be join the Basingstoke-based Council of Registered Gas Installers (CORGI).

Last year CORGI passed details of 500 unregistered fitters to the HSE for possible prosecution.

Helen Atkinson, a spokeswoman, said: "If you are having gas work carried out please ensure the fitters are registered with CORGI."

The current legislation, which obliges landlords properly to maintain gas fires and provide tenants with a safety certificate, makes no requirement of people living in private homes, where most gas poisoning deaths occur.

Mr Griffiths said: "It is quite shocking that so many of our young people are dying like this. I think an MOT on gas equipment should be seriously considered, so that all gas equipment should have an annual inspection."