Death case council admits dishwasher fluid offence

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A county council today pleaded guilty to failing to store a hazardous substance correctly after a Down's syndrome sufferer died after accidentally swallowing dishwater fluid at a day centre for adults with learning difficulties.

Colin Woods' digestive organs were gradually eroded by the sodium hydroxide substance, which he had believed to be orange squash.

It left the 60-year-old unable to eat, and he had lost almost half his body weight by the time he died on April 7 2006, 16 months after swallowing the fluid while on an outing from St Nicholas Centre in Lewes, East Sussex, on December 7 2004.

Five other people also drank the poisonous liquid and still suffer from oesophageal problems today, Brighton Magistrates' Court heard.

Prosecutor Rubina Zaidi said the East Sussex County Council-owned and run day centre put on a weekly sports outing to nearby Plumpton College, which the group was on when they drank the concoction.

After finishing their activities they stopped to have a drink of orange squash as was usual on the trips. Almost immediately all six were taken severely unwell, Ms Zaidi said.

They started vomiting, fitting and coughing up blood, and all six were taken to hospital. Meanwhile one of the carers rang the centre to report the incident.

Ms Zaidi said that back at the centre, a member of staff discovered an open container of Suma Ultra L2 dishwasher fluid, which was usually kept underneath the dishwasher in the centre's kitchen, in a different room.

Further investigation found the bottle was of virtually indistinguishable appearance to the bottles of orange squash consumed at the centre, and it was decided that the unnamed person who mixed the drink had not meant to cause any harm.

Ms Zaidi said a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found no hazardous substance controls were in place at the centre and no data sheet was maintained for the detergent.

"The council exposed these particularly vulnerable service users to a serious risk to their health and safety," she said.

In mitigation, the court heard that the relevant staff at the centre have been disciplined and revised risk assessments put in place since the incident.

After hearing that the council had pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to store a hazardous substance in such a way as to prevent serious risk, magistrates committed the case to Crown Court for sentence at a date yet to be fixed.