Carbon monoxide poisoning affects a surprising number of social housing tenants, new evidence suggests. Yet it is easily avoided. Martin Hilditch reports
In February 2011 a five-storey block of flats in Aden Grove, Stoke Newington, was rocked by an explosion.
More than 40 residents were briefly evacuated from the north London block following the blast, which destroyed one home. It later emerged that a defective cooker was to blame for the explosion, which was described by one resident as ‘the loudest bang you could ever imagine’ in an interview with the BBC.
Given that the no one was injured and that the landlord - arm’s-length management organisation Hackney Homes - had carried out full gas safety checks in the block, it might be tempting to shrug and say the explosion was ‘one of those things’.
New research, however, suggests that social landlords should be thinking again about just how safe their homes are when it comes to gas. The results of a survey, to be published by gas safety expert Corgi Technical Services later this month, reveals that the majority of social landlords have dealt with reported cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in their homes over the past 12 months.
Out of the 96 respondents to the poll, who are housing association gas managers and asset managers, 58 per cent have dealt with at least one report of carbon monoxide poisoning. Thirteen per cent of all respondents have dealt with more than five reports and three providers have dealt with more than 150.
Why, though, are so many social landlords dealing with reports of carbon monoxide poisoning and just how safe are their homes?
Funnily enough Hackney Homes is the perfect place to start looking for answers. In 2010 it set up a programme to monitor carbon monoxide in its homes and by November 2011 almost all of its 22,000 homes had at least one carbon monoxide alarm installed. A gas engineer investigated every time one of the alarms was activated and recorded the reasons. The work was detailed enough that it attracted the attention of the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, part of the Health Protection Agency, which studied every incident over a six-month period between November 2011 and April 2012.
The findings will send a shiver down the spine of most social landlords. Over the six-month period, 104 carbon monoxide incidents - where the alarms went off - were reported. That works out at an average of one carbon monoxide incident every two days or 4.64 incidents per 1,000 households.
Some of these activations were effectively false alarms. In 40 out of the 104 cases - 38.5 per cent - the alarm was either faulty, running out of batteries or in the wrong position. Large numbers of the incidents, however, were far more serious. As the CRCEH report states: ‘One of the main causes of carbon monoxide alarm activation was that a gas appliance in the home was found to be unsafe due to it emitting carbon monoxide above guideline values when tested by gas engineers.’
In almost 10 per cent of cases the boiler had to be disconnected, in 30 per cent the cooker was defective and switched off and in 25 per cent of cases a malfunctioning gas fire was turned off.
Martin Weaver, head of planned maintenance at Hackney Homes, neatly sums up the reaction at the time. ‘It was a surprise when the number of them started going off that did,’ he states. ‘They are big numbers.’
Mr Weaver says the drive for installing alarms in all of the landlord’s homes came after staff attended a carbon monoxide awareness event at the House of Lords ‘a few years ago’ where ‘victims came and made the case that people weren’t taking this as seriously as they need to’.
‘From my personal point of view I was thinking “what can I do about this?”,’ he says. ‘I feel quite strongly about it.’
The installation of alarms was also driven in part by the fact that it was difficult to gain access to some properties to conduct gas checks, he adds. ‘We said this would give us another safety margin - this is belt and braces.’
Mr Weaver believes the findings contain information that should be of use to landlords across the UK.
‘What it says to me is that there is a higher instance of people who are unwell or suffering carbon monoxide poisoning [than people think],’ he says. ‘None of the people [HH residents whose alarms went off] knew they were suffering. But when you asked them a question they said “we weren’t feeling very well”.’
Hackney Homes has taken a range of action on the back of the incidents, including replacing defective fires with additional radiators, providing advice to tenants about ventilating their kitchens when cooking, as well as shutting down defective products.
As the aforementioned Corgi Technical Services survey, to be published in full at a conference it is hosting on 24 April, hints, other social landlords may have little idea about the scale of the problem in their homes.
While a few landlords that took part in the survey say they have dealt with significant numbers of reports of carbon monoxide poisoning in the past 12 months, they may actually just be the best informed ones. That’s because almost 60 per cent of the 106 landlords who responded to a specific question say they have installed carbon monoxide alarms in less than 30 per cent of their homes. Forty per cent of respondents have installed them in less than 20 per cent of their homes and 10.4 per cent have installed no carbon monoxide alarms at all.
Kevin Winship, technical expert at Corgi Technical Services, emphasises that carbon monoxide alarms are useful but a ‘second-stage safety device’ that should never be seen as a substitute for the legally required annual servicing of gas appliances.
While most landlords have an awareness of gas safety issues, however, he states that ‘whether their policies and procedures are effective and efficient, or even compliant [with regulations], is questionable’.
‘One of the key [problem] areas these days is not having anybody competent in managing that area of work,’ he states. Cutbacks, driven by austerity, mean that landlords ‘have got a lot fewer people controlling these [gas installation] contracts’ than previously, he adds.
‘Contractors are able to run rings round the clients,’ he states. ‘Take servicing as an example. Generally it takes about 60 minutes to service an appliance and gas boiler. Some contractors are squeezing 10 or 12 jobs into one working day, after bidding low for contracts.’ If they are working much less than 10 or 12 hours then ‘obviously corners are being cut’, he adds.
‘One of the first things we find when we are auditing is that appliances are not fully examined.’
He adds that Corgi staff have also seen ‘poor quality of installation’ of boilers where they appear to have ‘just been thrown in’. A number of landlords are now experiencing costly problems because the boilers have ‘been poorly installed [and] they are only getting lifespans of between five to 10 years for certain appliances, whereas you would expect to have 12 years plus’, he adds.
‘We are seeing a number of cases where somebody has actually been poisoned,’ he says. ‘There are always factors tied into that: poor-quality servicing, flues not operating correctly, flues not being installed correctly.’
Cookers have been a major cause of problems because many people never get them serviced and they tend not to be the responsibility of the social landlord, he adds.
Guinness Northern Counties won an award from the National Home Improvement Council earlier this year for its gas safety work - so it can justifiably claim to be at the top of its game. The 26,000-home association has installed ‘early warning’ systems in roughly 600 homes of its most vulnerable tenants, which switch off the gas as well as sounding an alarm if it detects a leak. The housing association also has an in-house team of auditors who inspect around 10 per cent of the work carried out by its gas contractors.
Mark Gormley, head of asset management at Guinness Northern Counties, says it adopts a ‘risk-based approach’. For example, about a year ago it acted after a gas leak from a tenant’s cooker that ‘potentially could have got into the communal area’ of a block of flats.
‘It has to be about a response to the risk,’ he states. ‘With welfare reform people are going to be more and more tempted to save a few pounds by buying appliances that could be dodgy [because they are cheap].’
Guinness’ sample checks are also targeted, he adds. ‘If they [tenants] think that the engineer wasn’t in there very long we will go and do a sample check [of the work]. It is very much about not relying on a piece of paper.
If a customer complains about the quality of work, checks should also be made, he adds.
One person with more reason than most to care passionately about gas safety is Louise Baldock, vice chair of 1,300-home Venture Housing Association and chair of Liverpool Council’s finance and resource committee.
Ms Baldock’s fiancé, Michael Price, died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 45 in January 1999 after a blocked chimney caused a build-up of fumes from his smokeless stove.
‘He lost a whole day [asleep] and woke up and thought he had been very poorly with flu.’ Because he felt ill he stayed in the house in the same room as the stove, she says.
Ms Baldock says she is ‘not surprised’ that the Corgi Technical Services survey has revealed that ‘there are a lot of alarms going off’.
‘I saw a piece of research a few years ago that said one in 10 domestic appliances are faulty in some way,’ she states. ‘I think a lot of people will be feeling tired and run-down who don’t know [that in fact] they have got carbon monoxide poisoning.’
Venture Housing Association has held awareness sessions for tenants, she states, at which it gives away carbon monoxide alarms. Liverpool Council has also held various events to raise awareness among residents, including radio adverts and posters in doctors’ surgeries.
Social landlords tend to take the issue seriously when they are challenged over it, Ms Baldock adds.
‘It usually takes someone like me who has been a victim to urge them to get thinking about it,’ she says. Speaking of which, there’s no time like the present.
Gas and asset managers who responded to Corgi’s survey of the sector, to be published on 24 April, were invited to say if government cost-saving measures were having an impact on their work.
Some of the replies give some cause for worry. One provider says a freeze on recruitment has led to an ‘under-resourced section [and] this has an impact on the amount of quality control we carry out on our gas contractors’.
They add that this led to ‘too much reliance on our contractors’.
Another says that its appliance renewal programme has ‘been stopped and appliances are being renewed when past economic repair’.
Another simply replies that cuts have had ‘loads’ of impact. ‘Not enough staff’, they add. Another respondent says they think cuts have been ‘detrimental to tenant safety’, but provides no further details.