Water Heaters
HSE Warning On Mobile Gas Heaters

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) today issued an urgent warning to users of mobile heaters which burn Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG): mobile gas heaters which have not been properly serviced can be lethal as they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

The warning follows six deaths linked to the use of mobile gas heaters within the last five weeks. HSE's Head of Gas Safety Policy, Barry Watkinson, said today

"Many thousands of these heaters are used every day in homes all over Britain. They are often kept for many years and used occasionally for extra heating in cold weather. New heaters and those which have been serviced regularly should operate perfectly safely, so most users should have no cause for concern, but your heater could be suspect if:

  • it has cracked or flaking cement around the ceramic panels at the front
  • the panels are damaged
  • the panels do not glow red when the fire has warmed up or they lose their red colour; or it makes unusual purring or spluttering sounds when it has warmed up."

Mr. Watkinson warned:

"if you think your heater is suspect you must stop using it and either call in a CORGI registered gas engineer or take it to a gas service centre immediately. This could save your life. Also it is always vitally important to make sure that there is a way for some fresh air to get into the room, even if your heater is working properly.

"Tragically, and very unusually, in the last five weeks we have learned of six deaths linked to the use of mobile gas heaters which had not been properly maintained. These were: a 22 year-old mother, her two year old son and nine month-old daughter in Sheffield; a 23 year-old man in Derby; a 27 year-old man in Walsall and a 32 year-old man in the North East."

In the interests of public safety, Coroners have given permission for HSE to use this information before inquests have been held.

HSE is aware of another death (in Cornwall) in March, but six deaths in five weeks is unprecedented. Each year there are about 30 unnecessary deaths due to poorly maintained or ventilated gas appliances, but HSE believes that very few of these have been caused by mobile heaters, probably no more than two a year.

Scientists from HSE's Health and Safety Laboratory have found that heaters which have not been properly maintained can be lethal. They tested a 17 year old heater which had not been properly maintained and found that it produced lethal amounts of carbon monoxide in less than ten minutes.

"If heaters are not serviced regularly they will still work but won't burn properly", Mr Watkinson explained. "When gas doesn't burn properly it produces excess carbon monoxide, which is poisonous. You can't see, smell or taste carbon monoxide and it can kill, without warning, in a matter of hours. If you have symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning - which include tiredness, drowsiness, headache, pains in the chest and stomach pains - when using a gas appliance, you should see your doctor.

"Where these symptoms affect more than one person in the home, or where they improve when away from home but recur upon return, carbon monoxide poisoning may be the reason.

"Fire resistant cement is used to seal the ceramic panels of the fire in position. If this cracks pieces of cement fall out and leave gaps in the seal. Gas then burns behind the panel, instead of in front of it. This produces excess carbon monoxide and the heater is likely to make unusual and quite loud purring or spluttering sounds."

Andrew Ford from the Liquefied Petroleum Gas Association said:

"We have produced a new free leaflet to explain how to spot a suspect fire. Our members will give a copy to anyone buying a replacement gas bottle for a mobile heater and they will also be available by calling the HSE Gas Safety Advice Line on 0800 300 363 (calls are free).

"The vast majority of mobile gas fires are perfectly safe and incidents of gas poisoning are rare but we are taking the recent deaths very seriously and fully support HSE's action to publicise the potential dangers."

Debbie Davies, of Leeds based CO Support, a support group for families who have lost relatives poisoned by Carbon Monoxide and those suffering from poisoning, said: Every death is a personal tragedy. If you, or your friends or family, have a mobile gas fire make sure it is working properly and get it serviced by a competent CORGI registered gas engineer, or take it to a gas service centre if you are in any doubt. Help to make sure that there are no more unnecessary deaths."

(Source HSE 14/12/99)