‘Radical step-change’ urged to cut carbon monoxide poisoning

Boiler replacement scheme and innovation standard for alarms urged in parliamentary report on carbon monoxide safety

An “unashamedly radical step-change” in how carbon monoxide (CO) safety is promoted in the UK is needed in order to reduce associated injuries and fatalities, according to a parliamentary report launched today (January 19).

The 92-page report — ‘Carbon monoxide: from awareness to action’ — follows a nine-month inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group (APPCOG) and calls on the government, industry and those involved in safety campaigning to utilise behavioural sciences to improve awareness of CO poisoning.

The parliamentary report calls for an 'Innovation Standard' for carbon monoxide alarms to boost 'novel designs'

The parliamentary report calls for an ‘Innovation Standard’ for carbon monoxide alarms to boost ‘novel designs’

Campaigns to reduce smoking and improve diets are highlighted as examples of where behavioural insights have been used to positive effect, and the report states that “it is likely that once people are aware of the CO risk, the benefits of relevant CO-safe behaviours will also be generally well known”.

The inquiry, chaired by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff and Dr Rachel McCloy, director of the Centre for Applied Behavioural Science at the University of Reading, found that current approaches to CO safety rely too heavily on ‘general awareness raising’.

Instead, safety promotion should be more tailored to each of CO’s major sources and environments, such as camping and boating, according to APPCOG.

And, alongside awareness-raising, the report argues data, context and messengers are all “vitally important” factors in determining the effectiveness of CO safety efforts.

Focusing on three main areas — domestic appliances and environments, detection and technology, and campsite and boating environments — the report makes a total of 20 recommendations, including:

  • For the government to introduce a boiler replacement scheme tied to the energy supplier Priority Services Register to target “the most dangerous appliances in the most vulnerable situations”.
  • To create an ‘Innovation Standard’ for CO alarms, allowing flexibility within existing rules without compromising safety, to encourage the design of novel CO detection applications.
  • For all recreation parks to offer suitable CO alarms to purchase, or loan for the duration of stay, including those developed through the suggested ‘Innovation Standard’.

APPCOG also calls for a full-time staff member in the Department for Communities and Local Government to be seconded to coordinate strategy and resources for CO safety awareness, with a single CO campaign brand and set of materials developed and made available online.

Elsewhere, the report recommends that the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 is amended to include a statutory requirement for Fire & Rescue Services to include CO safety in their work, which should include nationally coordinating data gathering and CO prevention activities through the Chief Fire Officers Association.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas produced when fuels such as natural gas, oil, coal or wood do not burn with sufficient oxygen, and “can kill in minutes”, according to APPCOG.

Department of Health (DH) figures from 2013 show that accidental poisoning from CO results in around 40 recorded deaths and 200 hospitalisations each year in England and Wales. In addition, figures indicate that there are 4,000 attendances at accident and emergency departments for treatment for CO poisoning each year in England.

Meanwhile, a 2013 letter from the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Nursing Officer and Director of Nursing (DH and Public Health England), also highlights that “whilst a considerable number of people die from accidental acute CO poisoning, it is now confirmed many more are injured by sub-lethal exposure,” adding that “It is likely that the true number exposed in this way is even greater than reported”.


Launching the report, Co-chair of APPCOG, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, commented: “What this report is calling for is an unashamedly radical step-change in how we approach carbon monoxide safety in the UK. Raising public awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning is an important first step, but we need a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the CO poisoning environment if we are to successfully eradicate all future occurrences. Behavioural science offers us that deeper understanding and will enable us to move from awareness to action.”

Also commenting on the report’s launch, fellow APPCOG inquiry co-chair Dr Rachel McCloy added: “Academia can play an important part in improving CO safety in the future, and behavioural science has been increasingly used across policy-making and campaigning in recent years. By applying behavioural insights, this inquiry encourages a range of new trials, studies and approaches, and with better coordination of research, data, and campaigning, interventions and approaches to saving lives and preventing injuries can be greatly improved.”

The report builds upon a previous inquiry by the APPCOG in 2011, ‘Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning’, which focused primarily on improved methods of direct CO detection and awareness-raising over the dangers posed by carbon monoxide poisoning and the appliances that emit it.


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