Potentially fatal levels of carbon monoxide can be produced if a heater is faulty or poorly maintained, is inadequately ventilated, has no mechanism to direct pollutants outside or has a dodgy or blocked flue.
Appliance manufacturers and governmental bodies recommend having heaters professionally checked every two years. If any of the following warning signs occur it is important to seek immediate attention:
- a yellow or sooty flame (rather than sharp and blue) except in a decorative log fire;
- a pilot light which extinguishes unexpectedly or “pops” when lighting;
- signs of heat damage such as discoloration of walls or heater panels;
- soot stains around the heater; and
- walls which are too hot to touch when the heater is operating.
I urge all property managers to raise this issue with landlords, and to ensure that heater inspections are conducted by a gas fitter who is:
- qualified to check for carbon monoxide leakage; and
- equipped with a carbon monoxide analyser.
Landlords can also buy carbon monoxide detectors as a backup for about the same price as smoke detectors, but these are not always reliable and you still need to have gas heaters regularly serviced.
The need to check heaters has been brought to greater public attention after two children died in Victoria in May 2010. The deaths of Chase and Tyler Robinson – aged eight and six – were attributed to an unserviced gas wall heater in their rented home which emitted 500 times the safe level of carbon monoxide.
Feeling bad, they crawled into bed with their mother, Vanessa, who was severely affected but survived the incident.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be mistaken for the flu, food poisoning or a hangover and include tiredness, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, nausea, weakness, confusion and chest pain.
Pets can also suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning, and it can be a warning sign if a person and their pet gets ill at the same time. In some cases, pet owners have only become aware of the poisoning after their pet has died.
If a tenant complains of symptoms which only occur in the home, or which disappear or get better when they leave the premises, it could be a pointer to possible carbon monoxide poisoning.