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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 747


Dr STONE (11:00 AM) —As I speak to this motion I thank my electoral neighbour the member for Mallee for supporting me in this motion. He, too, is most concerned about this issue.

On Sunday 30 May 2010, two young boys—nine-year-old Chase Robinson and seven-year-old Tyler Robinson—were found dead in their sleep in a rented family home in Mooroopna in Victoria, a tragedy that shocked that community. Their mother, Vanessa, the only other occupant in the house, was also very unwell. This motion also has a silent partner in the form of Vanessa Robinson, who is determined that the death of her two young sons not be in vain. She wishes to see something done seriously about the problem of carbon monoxide poisoning in Australia.

Investigations into the boys’ deaths found that a faulty gas wall heater had been operating all night. The boys had died quietly from carbon monoxide poisoning. Because of the widespread ignorance surrounding carbon monoxide poisoning, the earliest media reports suggested that Vanessa was somehow involved in a terrible murder-suicide pact. A few days later, on 3 June, Vanessa’s parents, Sue and Les Rowney, issued a plea for understanding in a press release:

At a time when our family has just lost two amazing and well loved boys, rather than be allowed to grieve in private and maintain a watch over our daughter in the Intensive Care Unit whilst she remained in an induced coma following the effects of the carbon monoxide, we have had to endure seeing the news and photos of our beloved Chase and Tyler splashed across the front pages of national and local newspapers and TV media with headlines linking their mother to their deaths. Her name, her identity, have been released and published (including photos), her reputation as a person and loving mother has been publicly and erroneously called into question. She had been reported as having been arrested when the truth was that she was too unwell to be interviewed by detectives let alone be arrested.

This tragedy and its aftermath could have been avoided if the public were alive to the dangers of leaking gas; if police and emergency workers knew more about it—its symptoms and its consequences; and if gas appliances were regularly checked.

There are currently no laws mandating regular safety checks for gas appliances fitted in homes, nor are gas detectors mandated. In the last 10 years there have been at least five deaths in Victoria caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. In fact, we are not sure how many there have been in Victoria or other states; too often deaths that occur in the very young or the very old go without a diagnosis that it was, in fact, carbon monoxide poisoning.

Both natural gas and LPG can lead to carbon monoxide production where appliances are misused, incorrectly installed or poorly maintained. Very recently carbon monoxide killed a 23-year-old man when fumes built up from a generator he was using under a house while sheltering from Cyclone Yasi near Ingham. Just a day or so ago a tragedy was averted at Nathalia’s Bridge Hotel. On Saturday morning carbon dioxide was released when a post mix machine, which mixes soft drink, leaked into the hotel cellar. Fortunately, a call for assistance was made and the fire authority attended the scene, and so disaster was averted.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often difficult for the public to detect. There is not sufficient public information or education about the dangers, and carbon monoxide is tasteless, colourless, odourless and invisible. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning vary, with tiredness, shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. The symptoms can easily be disregarded or misunderstood. In particular, the very young and the very old can be affected without anyone putting the gas wall furnace and the symptoms together.

Carbon monoxide detectors can be purchased in Australia for as little as $40 each, but we do not have Australian standards for these detectors—unlike the situation with smoke detectors. In other countries these standards do exist, and they are regulated. This motion calls for all new residential properties with gas appliances to be fitted with approved carbon monoxide detectors, and for rental properties to have gas detectors installed and checked biennially. We also need nationally consistent legislation for safety checks on gas appliances in homes and the installation of detectors, and the implementation of a national safety awareness program highlighting the dangers and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

This motion is the first step in bringing about change which would need to come via the Australian Building Codes Board, ABCB. Template legislation or regulations need to be introduced in each state and territory. I acknowledge it may be a process best managed through COAG. The ABCB maintains and updates the Building Code of Australia. It provides the community with cost-effective and efficient regulations to aid the design, construction and use of buildings throughout Australia and it responds to government and industry calls for minimum necessary regulation to facilitate and not inhibit business. We are now making that call. I know that the member for Mallee and I will be following up on this motion to make sure that we see action to save lives. Beginning in 1994, legislation or regulations were introduced into each state and territory requiring that all homes be fitted with smoke alarms. An equivalent measure now needs to be implemented to deal with the equally deadly leaking of carbon monoxide from gas appliances which are found in most homes in Australia today.

I want to return to the words of Vanessa Robinson’s family. As I said before, Vanessa is a silent partner in putting this motion today. Vanessa has already had fundraising efforts with the father of the boys, Scott. She has also done a great deal herself to try to raise awareness of this problem. I understand that with the Victorian government she is hoping to put some community advertising through television into the broader Australian population so that more people are aware of just what can happen if you do not have properly maintained or installed gas appliances. This was written by her parents:

Throughout this and the ensuing backlash and animosity towards Vanessa in the local and national community the family has maintained a dignified silence whilst they assisted detectives with their enquiries and tried to make sense of what had happened. We wish the possibility of Carbon Monoxide poisoning had been investigated earlier and in parallel with the murder investigation, as we had raised concerns about this possibility with the police on Monday—

that was following the deaths.

We have also been appalled by the lack of medical attention Vanessa received during the initial hours of her being taken by the Police.

We are equally appalled by the lack of information afforded to us over our daughter’s condition especially during the time that her health began to rapidly deteriorate, forcing us to hire a lawyer in order to be able to find out its severity and whether we needed to immediately travel to Melbourne to be by her side. For a mother and father that had just lost two grandchildren and who was not been allowed to see their daughter or be informed of the severity of her deteriorating condition it is just not right.

…            …            …

Finally we would like to urge all families to ensure their heaters are serviced and checked to ensure there are no Carbon Monoxide leaks as this gas cannot be seen, smelt or tasted but it can result in a tragic loss of life as it has for our family.

As you can see, this is a matter which has led to the most sad and serious consequences for the Robinson family and it would have been totally avoidable if in fact that rented property had been inspected for gas leakage. We understand that the gas heater had been on the property for some seven years without any attention. Of course it is the case that we need to make sure that people who have gas appliances do not tamper with them themselves and always use qualified tradespeople when they are having their gas appliances examined, installed or in any way altered.

As members of parliament we need to work to we do all we can through this national parliament to ensure tragedies like the deaths of Chase and Tyler Robinson never happen again. It is also important that we look at international best practice. We note that in the United Kingdom there has been concern about gas leakage and the consequences for many years. They have legislation which makes sure that people are aware of the problem and there are mandated requirements in relation to detectors.

Given that detectors are quite a cheap piece of equipment, and given that retrofitting them in houses is not a difficult or expensive thing to do, I call upon this parliament to have a bilateral approach—as I am sure we will find in response to this motion today—to ensuring that one of these gaps that have occurred in our regulation of community safety is closed; that, as I said a minute ago, the deaths of young boys like Chase and Tyler Robinson have not been in vain; and that such tragedies never happen again.