‘Our whole world was changed overnight’

Paul Overton, whose daughter, Katie Overton, inset, died from carbon monoxide poisoning
Paul Overton, whose daughter, Katie Overton, inset, died from carbon monoxide poisoning

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Katie Overton went to bed excited about baking cakes for her little sister’s fifth birthday party.

Kind and caring, she loved doing things for her sisters, Sian and Emma.

Katie Overton

Katie Overton

She should have gone to sleep with her whole life still stretched out in front of her.

But overcome by a deadly poison her family couldn’t see, smell or taste, she didn’t even get to live another day.

Her parents Debbie and Paul have had eight years without Katie, but their oldest daughter’s death never gets any easier to bear.

Yet despite Paul’s best efforts to raise awareness about carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, the number of lives claimed has actually gone up this year.

‘We are angry at the loss of Katie but now I’m more frustrated than I was when it first happened,’ says Paul. ‘People are still dying and there’s no good reason for that.’

According to a report from the Gas Safety Trust, in the 12 months between July 1 2010 and June 30 2011, there were 50 recorded incidents involving CO poisoning. Of the 105 people involved in those incidents, there were 25 fatalities – that’s three times more than the previous year.

The Overtons were renting a house in Southsea’s Oxford Road when 11-and-a-half year old Katie died on March 29, 2003.

A faulty gas boiler in the kitchen below her bedroom had been pumping CO out, creating a lethal build-up in her room.

Youngest sister Emma was due to celebrate her birthday with a party at home when Paul discovered Katie’s lifeless body in her room.

‘Debbie woke up at about 8am and popped in to see Katie,’ remembers Paul. ‘She used to sleep with her door and window shut so that her sisters wouldn’t disturb her and because there was a dog living nearby that would bark. That’s what probably saved us.

‘It was at about 10am when I realised it just seemed very quiet in the house. Something didn’t feel right. Katie’s door was closed. I went in and she was face down on the bed. There was vomit on her pillow.’

Katie was taken by ambulance to Queen Alexandra Hospital but her parents were told she’d died before they got there.

‘We were in a state of shock. She was a perfectly healthy girl when she’d gone to bed the night before. We had no idea what had caused her death. We were still in the house. We thought “It might be something here that we don’t know about”. We were petrified.

‘We went on like that for nine days and on the 10th day I woke up with a pounding headache and the house stank.’

As post mortems don’t routinely check for CO poisoning, Katie’s death had been unexplained, leaving the rest of her family in terrible danger.

They didn’t have a CO alarm that would have alerted them to the deadly presence in their midst.

A gas safety certificate had run out five days before Katie’s death and the boiler hadn’t actually been serviced. Their landlord was later fined £42,000 for breaching gas safety legislation.

Paul has been campaigning for tighter regulations to prevent CO deaths ever since. He wants the government to warn people of the dangers via TV adverts. He also wants more education about audible alarms and says laws need to be introduced to make sure all fuel appliances are serviced by properly trained individuals.

At the moment, landlords don’t have to fit properties with CO alarms. They are required by law to make sure that appliances have an annual gas safety check – but Paul believes that doesn’t go far enough and wants landlords to be made to carry out a full service instead.

Crucially, homeowners don’t have to have any appliances checked, yet CO poisoning can leak into neighbouring properties.

Through his work with the charity CO-Gas Safety, he’s found that many are still living in ignorance about the dangers of CO poisoning.

‘Eight years down the line and the basic laws haven’t changed and people are still dying,’ he adds. ‘I’ve been to so many meetings over the years, trying to deal with these problems. Why can’t we tell people on prime time television about the danger they are in?

‘I’m not saying gas itself is dangerous, or gas appliances, but they both can be if mis-handled. It’s not just gas either, it’s all fuels.

‘Katie’s death was entirely preventable. If we had known about carbon monoxide we would have got an audible alarm. We would have bought one and it would have been triggered so we would have known that CO was present.’

This week marks Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week and Paul says it’s a chance to remind people about the importance of protecting their families. Debbie doesn’t like talking about Katie’s death and Emma, now 14, and Sian, almost 16, have both had to come to terms with her loss too.

The family now lives in the New Forest but Paul continues to spread the word about what happened through his work with CO-Gas Safety.

‘We’ve got a sadness that’s never going to go away,’ he says. ‘The years go by but in a normal death where there’s been an accident, or someone has been ill and you’ve been expecting it, it’s different. When it’s your child and you lose them like that your whole life is turned on its head.

‘It’s total devastation. Everything is fine and then the next day your whole world has changed. I still remember vividly the moment I found her.

‘You live, you survive, we have to for Sian and Emma.’

He adds: ‘You try and protect your children all their lives. You protect them from the risks that you can see but you can’t see CO.

‘Get an audible alarm but that’s only a back-up. All appliances need to be serviced.’

SYMPTOMS TO LOOK OUT FOR

A headache is the most common symptom of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

Other common symptoms include: feeling sick; dizziness; feeling tired and confused; being sick and having abdominal pain; shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

The symptoms of CO poisoning can resemble those of food poisoning and the flu. However, unlike flu, CO poisoning does not cause a high temperature.

You may notice that your symptoms are less severe at times when you are away from the source of the carbon monoxide.

The longer you breathe it in, the worse your symptoms will get. You may lose your balance, vision and memory. Eventually, you may lose consciousness.

This can happen within minutes if there is a lot of CO in the air. However, the symptoms of CO poisoning can sometimes occur a number of days or months after breathing in carbon monoxide.

Symptoms of CO poisoning that develop later include: confusion; memory loss; co-ordination problems; high levels of carbon monoxide.

Pets may be the first to show signs of CO poisoning because they are very vulnerable to the effects. The smaller an animal or a person is, the faster CO will affect them.

If your pet suddenly becomes ill or dies unexpectedly, and the death is not related to old age or an existing condition, you should investigate the possibility of a CO leak.

SAFETY TIPS

CO-Gas Safety has the following tips to help you protect yourself:

1. Have your appliances properly installed and regularly serviced by qualified installers. With gas this means Gas Safe Registered. Ask about training and experience – it’s your money and your life.

Ensure your gas fitter is not only Gas Safe Registered but also qualified to work on that appliance and uses a flue gas analyser to check for the silent killer. You can check the individual’s ID number with the Gas Safe Register gassaferegister.co.uk to make sure he or she is qualified to undertake work on particular appliances.

2. Chimneys and flues must be swept once a year by a fully qualified engineer/sweep – sometimes more depending on the fuel.

3. Ensure adequate ventilation. Do not block vents.

4. As an extra safeguard buy a Carbon Monoxide alarm to European Standards EN50291. A battery-operated CO alarm is especially useful to take abroad. Alarms cost from around £15 and are available from most DIY shops and some supermarkets.

5. Portable heaters using combustible fuels have been responsible for some recent deaths from CO. If there is no other alternative and a portable appliance has to be used, you should make sure there is adequate ventilation; a CO detector with an audible alarm is used in the same room; children or vulnerable people should never be left alone; the appliance is never left on while anyone is sleeping in the room.

To find out more about the charity’s campaign log on to co-gassafety.co.uk