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Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas produced by combustion of hydrocarbon fuels. The toxic fume takes the place of oxygen in the blood, leading to headaches, drowsiness, irritability, reduced judgment and motor skills, convulsions, coma and death.
Between 2011 and 2016 there were 15 deaths attributed to gas and solid fuel appliances in Australia, and in the 12 months between 2018-2019 there were 256 hospitalizations due to accidental poisoning from carbon monoxide.
Concerningly, Carbon monoxide poisoning is becoming increasingly common. A recent study has found that carbon monoxide contributed to the death of 28 people between 2006-2018, when drivers unintentionally filled their homes with toxic fumes by leaving their keyless cars parked and running in their garages.
Carbon monoxide is particularly deadly in confined spaces such as cars, boats and caravans.
In 2017 there was a tragic accident where three family members were found dead at the bottom of a concrete water tank at Gunning. It is believed that a pump being used to clean the tank emitted carbon monoxide fumes. The family members likely succumbed while attempting to rescue the initial victim.
Following the tragic death of sailor Nicholas Banfield in 2016, the Coroner recommended that the NSW Government urgently consider implementing legislation to mandate Carbon monoxide alarms in all recreational and leisure craft and vehicles with sealable cabins, along with community education with regard to the associated dangers.
As of publication of this article in June 2022, a rule has not been imposed. Nevertheless, there would be a strong argument that a boat owner was negligent in failing to have a fitted detector.
The Supreme Court of Victoria’s recent judgment in Shahid v Alpha Trading Engineering Pty Ltd
 VSC 551 sheds further light on the dangerous substance. The Plaintiff in this matter was a taxi driver, who sustained a heart attack and brain injuries due to inhaling Carbon monoxide while driving the Defendant’s taxi on the 3 September 2013.
Tragically the driver on the previous shift had died in the vehicle, but no-one thought to carry out an inspection. The Court awarded Mr Shahid 1.5 million for his injuries and found the Defendant negligent for failing to inspect the vehicle.
The 1953 case of Watson v George  HCA 41 also illustrates the dangers. In this matter, the Plaintiff’s husband died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty bath heater at the Defendant’s lodging house. The defect was due to the accumulation of rust, and would have been “easily discoverable” by an expert, although the High Court determined that there was nothing to cause the occupier to suspect that the heater required attention.
We cannot imagine the result would be the same today, given the published recommendations for regular inspections and the cheap and available Carbon monoxide monitors available on the market.
In order to reduce the hazard, we advise readers to adhere to the following precautions:
- Always observe WHS procedures when working in confined spaces.
- Keep gas appliances clean and free of dust.
- Avoid using outdoor heaters or BBQ coals in enclosed spaces.
- Select flued gas heaters and ensure that rooms are well ventilated.
- Don’t use a gas heater overnight, or for extended periods.
- Have gas heaters checked every two years by a licensed gas fitter – and ask for a Compliance Certificate.
NB. appliances over 10 years old should be checked annually.
- Minimize the use of exhaust fans while heaters are used in other parts of the home.
Exhaust fans in the kitchen or bathroom can lead to gas heater emissions being sucked back into the house rather than allowing them to be exhausted to the outside air
- Install a carbon monoxide alarm as an additional safety measure, particularly in a vessel or caravan.
- Consider a personal carbon monoxide alarm for travel.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.
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