"They were such senseless deaths..." daughter of carbon monoxide poisoning victims pleads for wood heater awareness

Sue Hough wants the community to check their wood fires, chimneys and flues – and if they are hiring help to have it done for them, to check it’s done correctly too. FILE PHOTO
Sue Hough wants the community to check their wood fires, chimneys and flues – and if they are hiring help to have it done for them, to check it’s done correctly too. FILE PHOTO

The loss of her parents to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning last year may have been senseless, but it’s now given Sue Hough a new purpose. 

She wants the community to check their wood fires, chimneys and flues – and if they are hiring help to have it done for them, to check it’s done correctly too. 

The daughter of Elaine and David Livingstone  - the couple who died last year in August as a result of smoke from a poorly functioning and maintained wood heater - said she has been amazed at the response from the community to her parents’ death. 

A coroner’s report released this week after an investigation into their deaths found levels of carbon monoxide in their blood to be at the levels of those  associated with smoke inhalation from deliberate car exhaust inhalation, or fires. 

According to a pharmacologist working with detectives on the case, a carbon monoxide level of around 20 per cent would render most people unconscious.

Mr Livingstone was found to have carbon monoxide saturation of 50 per cent in his blood, his wife a slightly higher saturation of 57 per cent.

The police investigation blamed the wood heater, the only source of smoke in the home.

“So many people have stopped me and said, we must get our chimney and flue cleaned,” Sue said this week, after the public release of the coroner’s report into their deaths. 

“I just feel it’s really important people do check up on that. We thought Dad had his cleaned, we thought he had paid to have the chimney and fireplace maintained, the neighbour said she saw the workers on the roof…but we don’t know anything else.

“So it’s important to check that it is being cleaned properly and by who.

“They were such senseless deaths. I feel people need to know its important to maintain their fires and wood heaters.”

According to the Firewood Association of Australia, even in a correctly operated wood heater or fireplace, some of the combustion gases will condense on the inside of the flue or chimney as a  black tar-like substance called creosote.

“If this substance is allowed to build up it will restrict the air flow in the heater or fireplace, reducing its efficiency. Eventually a build up of creosote can completely block the flue, making the fire impossible to operate. One sign of a blocked flue is smoke coming into the room when you open the heater door. 

“Creosote appearing on the glass door is another indication that your heater is not working properly. Because creosote is flammable, if the chimney or flue gets hot enough the creosote can catch alight, causing a dangerous chimney fire.

“It is strongly recommended that you remove creosote build up regularly, at most every two years. This is best done by engaging a chimney sweep who will have all of the right equipment. If you decide to tackle this task yourself you need to be aware of the risks of working at a height and should use appropriate access and fall protection equipment.

“If you have a slow combustion heater you need to check the door seal for wear or damage, and replace it when necessary. These heaters rely on a good airtight seal around the door to work properly. Cracked glass in doors should be replaced as soon as possible.

“Slow combustion heaters have a baffle between the fire and the flue. Soot build up on this baffle reduces and will eventually totally block air flow to the flue. Removing soot from the baffle is an essential part of regular heater maintenance.

“When the fire is out and the ash bed and baffle have been cleaned you can inspect the firebox, baffle plate and the sides of the heater for signs of deterioration. Some rust and flaking of metal is to be expected but this should not be so great that it might lead to a hole forming.

“Most heater retailers will be able to provide spares or recommend someone who can repair your wood heater.”