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Consumer Policy - Policy Developments - Product safety

Poisoning by carbon monoxide (CO)

In various European Union Member States, with by country more than 30 deaths a year (when the number of deaths in the Union is estimated at between 150 and 270 a year), carbon monoxide (CO), an odourless and colourless gas, remains the first cause of death as a result of toxicity.

The Commissioner for Consumer Policy, Emma Bonino, sensitive to these probably underestimated data, issued in 1998 a warning to the Member States as they are primarily responsible for the safety of their own citizens. This message, which is still topical as winter approaches, stressed that the national instruments available should be strictly implemented as well as prevention through information. Accidents are often caused by outdated equipment and the lack of maintenance of domestic heating appliances and gas water heaters, or caused by the defective evacuation of the combustion fumes and inadequate use of the appliances.

Text of the warning addressed by Mrs Emma Bonino to Member states on 27.4.1998

(Letter to Permanent Representatives)

Every year, especially in winter, a large number of people die of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning . Indeed, as in the United States, this is the main cause of death from poisoning in a number of EU Member States, with more than 30 fatalities a year.

Carbon monoxide is a particularly insidious gas and is potentially lethal because it is odourless and colourless.

There are various potential sources of carbon monoxide, although domestic heating appliances and gas-fired water-heaters in particular are regarded as frequent sources of risk.

In the accidents that have been investigated, the main causes were poor state of repair and lack of proper maintenance, inadequate removal of combustion products and incorrect use of appliances.

In the period since the Commission˙s attention was drawn to this matter, it has taken a number of initiatives enabling it to gain greater knowledge of the problems involved and how to tackle them.

The main insights gained were that:

• - the problem is a universal one in that it concerns a large number of dwellings and not just a specific category of housing (such as holiday homes);

• - although there are differences between legal provisions at national level governing the installation, maintenance and inspection of gas-fired appliances, there is also a degree of consistency between national laws: for example, when fewer qualifications are required to work on appliances, inspection arrangements are more stringent, etc.;

• - there is no direct link between the scope of the regulations in the various countries and the number of fatal accidents;

• - there are no gaps in the law which, if remedied, would increase consumer safety;

• - the Community Directive on appliances burning gaseous fuels (90/396/EEC) is in itself a safeguard as far as appliances sold after 1 January 1996 are concerned.

Given the lack of consistent data which would allow the actual extent of the problem to be better understood and developments to be monitored, the departments of the Commission are currently still working on ways of improving the collection of data, especially via existing Community networks.

In view of this situation, and in my capacity as Member of the Commission responsible for consumer policy and health protection for consumers, I would like to call on the Governments of all the Member States to do everything in their power to intensify their efforts to deal with this problem.

Given the experience gained up to now, I feel I should emphasise two aspects:

Firstly: the importance of using legal provisions available at national level to prevent this sort of accident (legislation, regulations, etc.). Each Member State must be in a position to assess the effectiveness of measures taken and, if need be, to improve these or to make other provisions as appropriate;

Secondly: the importance of national information and accident-prevention campaigns which take account of everyone˙s particular situation and circumstances. These campaigns could focus on particular aspects of the conditions under which accidents are likely to occur (upkeep and maintenance of appliances, weather conditions, type of dwelling, high-risk groups, etc.).

The main purpose of these campaigns should be to complement and enhance existing national provisions.

I would be grateful if you would keep me informed about the efforts being made in your country to deal with this danger, and if you would provide me with any other available information on this matter. The information you provide will, together with the data already available to us, help in gaining a better understanding of the problem and of how to tackle it.



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