Katie blamed her migraines on stress. In fact, her faulty boiler was killing her
She’d had a miserable commute through the sleet after a long day at work and Katie Haines was looking forward to running a warm bath.
That Thursday night she switched on the TV, then rang her new husband Richard to ask him to grab them a ready meal from Waitrose — before filling the tub.
Minutes later Katie, a press officer at Oxford University, was dead. As she got up out of the bath she was overcome by an invisible cloud of carbon monoxide in the middle of the room.
As she got up out of the bath, Katie Haines (pictured with husband Richard) was overcome by an invisible cloud of carbon monoxide in the middle of the room
She hit her head on the side of the bath and drowned. She was found by Richard who returned home soon afterwards, laden with shopping.
The carbon monoxide had come from the faulty boiler in the adjoining kitchen.
Also in the kitchen, but still in its packet, was the carbon monoxide alarm which Katie, 31, and Richard, now 38, had bought from B&Q a couple of months earlier.
Since returning from their honeymoon in South America a few weeks before, the newly-weds had been so busy opening presents and writing thank-you cards, that they hadn’t had a chance to take the alarm out of its box.
It is nearly two years since Katie’s wedding in December 2009, but a picture of her smiling on her hen weekend is the first thing you see as you enter the home of her parents Gordon and Avril Samuel.
Despite his poise and dignity, Gordon, 60, co-owner of Mayfair’s Osborne Samuel gallery, admits he is a broken man.
‘There’s no word in the English language which describes what it’s like to lose a child so utterly unexpectedly, from a danger we didn’t even know existed.
‘If it was an illness, it still would have been terrible, but we could have seen it coming. But to lose a daughter to a silent, invisible gas . . . devastation doesn’t even come close.’
Earlier this year, an inquest heard how the boiler at Katie and Richard”s Victorian cottage, had been inspected the previous November (file picture)
If there’s one point Gordon and Avril want to press home in their first interview about their daughter’s death it’s that carbon monoxide poisoning can happen to anyone — and even if it doesn’t kill you, it can leave you disabled.
Earlier this year, an inquest heard how the boiler at Katie and Richard’s Victorian cottage in Wokingham, Berks, had been inspected the previous November.
The couple noticed the pilot light kept going out and the engineer gave it a yellow ‘at risk’ sticker advising that it should not be used.
Richard told the inquest that the couple continued to use it because they didn’t realise there was a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
As Avril, 60, explains: ‘People think carbon monoxide poisoning happens in bedsits or in run-down hotels abroad.
‘Katie’s death shows it happens in the UK — and in greater numbers than people realise.
‘It really is the silent killer because there’s no smell and you can’t see it. Less than 2 per cent of carbon monoxide in the air can kill in two minutes. Katie wouldn’t have known what was happening.’
The Samuels’ fear — shared by experts — is that the true extent of the problem is far greater than officially recognised.
According to the Department of Health, one person in the UK dies from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning every week.
But experts, including Dr Ed Walker, of the charity Carbon Monoxide Awareness, and Baroness Finlay, a professor of medicine who chaired a recent all-party group looking at the problem, agree that this is just the tip of the iceberg, with many more living with the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, without realising it.
Lady Finlay recently headed an inquiry into the problem and described health problems related to the gas as ‘woefully under-reported’.
This is because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often confused with flu, tummy upsets, and migraines — and doctors rarely ask about heating or ventilation in patients’ homes.
If undiagnosed, exposure to the gas over days, months and even years causes neurological damage that mimics strokes, depression and some types of dementia.
Before her death, as she dealt with the stress of wedding arrangements, Katie mentioned she had been suffering from migraines for the first time.
‘Katie had never complained of them before,’ says Avril.
‘But around the run-up to her wedding, she told me she’d been having migraines. Both Richard and Katie had felt under the weather, but they had so many distractions from the wedding, they just kept going.’
Even if she had sought help from a doctor, Avril and Gordon believe it’s highly unlikely that Katie would have been diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning.
When 200 GPs were presented with the classic symptoms of the illness — nausea, dizziness, tiredness, headaches and stomach and chest pains — in a study by the toxicology expert Professor John Henry, not one suggested the gas as a possible cause.
Another survey of paramedics earlier this year by Carbon Monoxide Awareness (also known as CO Awareness) found only one out of 38 diagnosed the problem.
Carbon monoxide is produced when any fuel that’s been lit doesn’t have enough oxygen to burn properly. The danger is that it builds up through lack of ventilation in flues and chimneys as well as around cookers and fires.
A lack of oxygen means that instead of making harmless carbon dioxide, the highly toxic gas carbon monoxide is produced instead.
A study by University College London in 2007 found that a fifth of all homes in the UK had at least one gas appliance installation rated as At Risk or Immediately Dangerous, leaving them open to the possibility of producing carbon monoxide.
At Katie Haines’s inquest, her family heard that the gas cloud that killed her probably formed because a combination of a poorly ventilated flue and windy weather created a backdraft into the house.
Carbon monoxide is lethal because it hijacks haemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. This starves the body of oxygen, affecting vital functions, causing a heart attack, coma and ultimately death.
In the immediate aftermath of her daughter’s death, Avril felt unable to do anything but ‘sit in a chair and not eat’. Meanwhile, Gordon found the best way to cope was to throw himself into organising Katie’s funeral in the church of St Mary The Virgin, Fairford, close to the family’s weekend home in Gloucestershire.
Three months earlier, he had walked his daughter down the aisle to marry Richard, the man she had met at a friend’s wedding four years before.
Two years on from Katie’s death the couple have reached a stage where they can finally smile at her memory. The shelves in their South London flat are filled with pictures of Katie and their younger children, twins Lydia and Adam, 30.
Avril says: ‘Katie was such a vibrant person, it’s hard to believe that her spirit is not still with us.’
The couple have stayed close to their son-in-law Richard, a manager at Hewlett Packard, who is also involved in their charity, The Katie Haines Memorial Trust, which aims to raise awareness.
Initially, he could not bear to sell the house where she died — but now realises he has to leave it behind. Avril says: ‘He’s such a lovely person and Katie would have wanted him to be happy.
‘When our family gets together there is an incompleteness, a void. Our best consolation is to hope that we can spare someone else what we have been through.’
Is your home at risk
While most households have a smoke detector, less than a third have a carbon monoxide alarm, which cost from 10.
Even if you have no fuel-burning appliances in your home, you still need an alert because the gas can pass though walls from next door.
Tony Brunton, of CO Awareness, says always look for a UK certified alarm that makes a noise, rather than flashes, if the gas is detected. ‘Carbon monoxide can kill in three minutes,’ he says. ‘If it’s in the house, you want something that tells you to get out immediately, not flashes up a different colour.’
■ You see yellow or orange flames in boilers and heaters when there should be blue ones.
■ There is soot on the walls around fires and water heaters.
■ Your chimney is blocked by nesting birds or your exit flue or airbricks are covered by plants growing up the walls.
SYMPTOMS TO WATCH FOR
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are, in many ways, similar to flu.
The key difference is that they tend to disappear as soon as you go outside and get fresh air as the oxygen levels in the blood are restored. That’s why it’s important to mention any concerns about ventilation or heating in your home to your doctor.
Symptoms to watch out for include:
HeadachesAnxiety and depression Nausea Tiredness and drowsiness Dizziness VomitingHeart palpitationsChest painPersonality change and clumsiness
For further information visit www.co-bealarmed.co.uk and the Katie Haines Memorial Trust at www.katiehaines.com