‘It’s only a matter of time until another serious incident occurs’

A faulty gas heater claimed her young sons’ lives, and nearly her own. A decade on, Vanessa Robinson wants to ensure other families are safe from the silent killer.

On May 30, 2010, Vanessa Robinson went to bed expecting to wake the next morning to start another busy day with her two sons – Tyler, six, and Chase, eight.

When both boys woke during the night, Vanessa thought they must be having a bad dream and they hopped into her bed.

“I thought they were safe because they were with me at home in bed. Home is supposed to be the safest place in the world,” says Vanessa.

But unknown to the family, the gas heater mounted on the wall of their rented home in Mooroopna, rural Victoria, was releasing carbon monoxide gas.

Invisible, odourless and tasteless, Vanessa had no idea they were being poisoned.

She woke the next morning in pain, confused and disorientated. Sadly, her boys had died. Gradually, investigators unravelled the tragedy.

Turning grief into action

With her former husband, Scott, Vanessa began raising awareness of the threat posed by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Vanessa founded the Chase and Tyler Foundation to lobby for changes in the law that enforce regular gas heater servicing, and to encourage people to install alarms that can alert them to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Since 2011, through a major campaign, Energy Safe Victoria has urged people to have their gas heater serviced at least once every two years by a qualified gasfitter.

Supported by the foundation, the campaign raises awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide leaking from an open flued space heater.

Ten years after the death of her children, gas and fuel-burning appliance safety is still an issue.

“While the number of people who have died by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning is low, it’s estimated that a large proportion of the community has suffered low-level carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s only a matter of time until another serious incident occurs,” says Vanessa.

“People need to take the appropriate safety steps to protect their family from this silent killer. Hopefully, by continuing to educate the community, that can help save someone’s life.”

gas heaters
Chase and Tyler before their death in 2010.

Safety steps to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

Get your gas heater checked every two years

Gas heaters should be serviced once every two years, or more frequently if the heater is old or in poor condition.

“Our most recent research shows that 48 per cent of owners and 47 per cent of tenants are having their home heating serviced. That leaves a significant proportion who are not getting their heater serviced,” says Marnie Williams, director of energy safety at Energy Safe Victoria.

Find a qualified gasfitter

Only use a qualified gasfitter to carry out a service and check that they are endorsed to service Type A gas appliances and have training to detect carbon monoxide spillage.

Consider the air flow in your house

Don’t run exhaust fans such as your kitchen rangehood or your bathroom fan at the same time as the gas wall heater.

Always ensure you have some ventilation or fresh air flow when you are running the heater for extended periods of time.

Monitor your gas heater use

Don’t leave the heater running longer than you need, and don’t leave it operating unattended overnight.

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning

You can’t see, smell or taste carbon monoxide – which is why it’s often called a “silent killer” – but there are some warning signs:

  • Tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Chest pain

If more than one person displays these symptoms, seek medical advice. Remember that carbon monoxide poisoning can also affects pets.

Source: Energy Safe Victoria

Written by Sarah Marinos.